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Politics of pandemics

Man’s ambition for power and control over vast lands and the wealth that came with them had brought plagues and pestilence even to the most powerful of empires.

The adventure of travel, gains of trade, human migration, poverty, climate change, political instability and big imperial dreams are all non-medical contributors to the spread of pandemics.

Justinian the Great’s insatiable desire to reclaim the lost territories of the Western Roman Empire in the middle of the 6th century spawned the Yersinia pestis that had caused the first pandemic and had brought down Europe and East Asia.

It had killed a hundred million, which doubled when the bubonic plague returned with the Black Death of 1346 to 1353, spread through trade via ships and carriages that brought death to 200 million in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Those two plagues sandwiched the Spanish flu in terms of number of victims, but not in scope of transmission.

World War I provided a backdrop to the Spanish flu’s spread worldwide, claiming as many as 17 to 100 million before HIV-AIDS (35 million deaths as of 2020) and Covid-19 (2.8 million as of March 2021) were born as new pandemics, claiming victims worldwide along with the Third Plague of 1855-1960 that was actually a third reiteration of the bubonic plague — the first to spread worldwide as global travel by oceans and seas was possible by then already.

Nobody can attribute plagues and pestilence on persons, nationalities, places and countries anymore.

There are no more Italian, Naples or Persian Plagues. Nor there would be a Russian typhus, a Hong Kong flu, or a Mexico or a Japanese smallpox.

China had made sure of that. It used its economic and political muscle to ensure that it is called Covid-19 (new coronavirus-2019), not the Wuhan, China virus, or the kung flu that former US President Donald Trump had playfully used to taunt the US rival.

For some in the US, these words had fueled hatred, resulting in attacks on Asians, including Filipinos, even by colored men whose rights these same Asians have vowed to help protect.

There are variants from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. But they did not invite attacks.

China made up for this by becoming the first country to mass produce anti-Covid vaccines. But this was not without a massive media campaign by the West, questioning their efficacy and the manner of tests conducted.

In the end, the first vaccines that were rolled out had become a potent weapon for China’s diplomacy push worldwide, spreading wider than Covid-19 could.

It’s now British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca’s turn to fight off the ugly press hounding its vaccines’ distribution, with “nationalism” issues surrounding the “vaccine spat” between the European Union and the UK that bolted the EU recently.

This same “vaccine nationalism” is being blamed for the poor distribution of the vaccines to other nations that cannot produce their own vials.

The wealthier countries also had a lock on the early deliveries, leaving the other economies that are suffering from the pandemic lockdowns with less vials than needed.

The absence of war no longer guarantees that this pandemic will not spread quicker than troop movements. The Philippines has seen the daily victims hover the vicinity of 10,000 the past week, forcing the government to extend the enhanced community quarantine, or the strictest of lockdowns, that closed many shops and kept many out of work.

The government needs the vaccines badly. But it has yet to bring in the purchased batches using money it got from bank loans.

President Rodrigo Duterte could leave a lasting legacy if he could roll out more vaccines at the fastest time possible.

Time is his concern.

Leaders of the local government units know this. That’s why they are quicker than anybody else in bringing in the vials that would save their economies and political chances, 2022 being an election year.

Mr. Duterte cannot seek reelection. But his power to anoint his chosen ones is now dependent on his handling of the Covid-19 scourge.

No meterstick can gauge his would-be success but the haste that he could vaccinate 70 percent of the more than 111 million Filipinos. That’s the government’s number, and we count on it to deliver.

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