The 2021 Moment

James Denseiow

America is heading into a moment that a New York Times health correspondent described as the “valley of death”. Currently COVID-19 is let loose as the outgoing President’s attention is focused solely on staying in power. The death toll is now averaging almost 3,000 a day, the equivalent of a 9/11 or a Pearl Harbour every day of the week.

The direction of this grim toll has already surpassed 300,000 dead in the US and projections are looking to top half a million by early next year. The numbers are so large to be almost numbing, yet unlike a war fought abroad there are no caskets covered in American flags returning home, no parades for troops rotating out, instead a deepening culture war with division around basic virus mitigation measures such as wearing masks.

Yet there is hope. Early in December the UK marked what the Health Minister called “V-Day” as Grandmother Margaret Keenan, 90, became the first person in the world to receive the first COVID-19 vaccine. One vaccine with a startling effectiveness rate of 95% is being injected into people’s arms in the UK and the US as we speak. Already politicians are speaking of a return to some degree of normalcy in Spring of next year.

However, it is one thing for the richest countries in the world to horde the vaccines for their own populations and it is quite another to see an effective rollout that brings the world back together and defeats the virus in totality. More and more vaccines coming online as Joe Biden becomes US President promising to rejuvenate US global influence is therefore a critical intersection of opportunity and hope.

You could argue that we had a similar moment at the start of 2020. During the early stages of the pandemic as countries grappled with what the virus was, how it spread and who was vulnerable, there was some hope that dealing with a deadly pandemic would change the geopolitical balance.

The UN Secretary General launched a push for a global ceasefire and the logic was that traditional issues between states would be relegated when faced with the enormity of handling an invisible enemy that kills at such a scale. Yet as the US has demonstrated a challenge that has the ability to unite a nation can also divide it.

The debate on mask wearing that appears the culture war zeitgeist in Trump’s America has the potential to become a real challenge in rolling out the vaccines. As one commentator observed the anti-vaccination movement in American predated the remarkably quick discovery of vaccines themselves. At one-point polling suggested that over 50% of Americans would not take a vaccine, although that number is plummeting as images of medics taking the shot started to circulate.

There is a moral debate to be had about the fact that those refuseniks are a clear and present danger to members of the US public who are unable to take the virus because of pre-existing health conditions. The more global question is how the US will support the distribution of the vaccine far beyond its own borders.

Would President Biden feel confident enough to support the vaccine getting to vulnerable non-Americans before the entire American population has received a shot? If he is, could the US become a champion of a lifesaving shot feed into a 2021 period of sustained medical diplomacy? Could it be used to build bridges, challenge traditional foes to cooperate or even be conditional of reasonable US foreign policy aims.

Biden’s rebooting of multilateral membership will come at a domestic price and the question is whether the Covid vaccine will make that price higher or more tolerable. The President-elect has struggled to set out his post-election vision in the way that he would have liked because Trump’s obstinance has refocussed the narrative away from handling the virus and back to whether the current incumbent will leave the White House peacefully.

The new year and the countdown to the inauguration, not to mention the fizzling out of the Trump challenges to the election, offer a reinvigorated Biden the chance to hit the ground running and lead American and help lead the world out of the darkness of the 2020 year of pandemic.

BY: James Denselow