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The West may retreat to the edge of Covid

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An obvious pattern in the first 18 months of the coronavirus is that every obvious certainty is replaced by an event. The latest news is that the West-mainly the United States and Western Europe-is moving towards post-pandemic normality. This is far from guaranteed. With the gradual decline in vaccination rates, the goal of achieving herd immunity is in conflict with cultural resistance. Take the first two steps and take a step back. The worrying thing is that the new mutation will exceed the West’s ability to inoculate its laggards.

They have caused President Joe Biden to miss his goal 70% of vaccinations By July 4th-he will fail the first self-set goal. The White House said it will hold a meeting in a few weeks. But this may require measures that Biden and the states have so far avoided for fear of inciting a culture war, such as forcing students to receive injections before returning to school. Most European countries are also facing similar difficulties. The slower ones are catching up with early adopters, partly because the latter are reaching a plateau.

The risk that the West will be forced into another winter shutdown should not be underestimated. The government faces two major challenges. The first is to control the ancient struggle between freedom and security. Almost every western country, not just English-speaking countries, chooses to persuade rather than coerce. Lottery tickets and free beer are more effective than fines for indecisive people. But the early success of the plan is eroding the incentives to win social boycotts-young people, religious people and various marginalized groups.

The United States is facing a growing problem of free-riding. With the disappearance of social distancing, the motivation to vaccinate also disappears. Americans accept the idea that the pandemic is over more than anywhere else. The stadium is nearly full. The indoor restaurant is overcrowded. In most parts of the country, masks are considered elitism.Some of them originate from the rash of the Centers for Disease Control May Declaration Only those who have not been vaccinated need to wear a mask indoors. The cultural differences in the United States are detrimental to this honor system, especially when vaccine certificates are easily forged.

The pop-up event held in New York’s Times Square earlier this month highlighted the general lack of social distancing in most parts of the United States and other Western countries © Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The sudden drop in mortality has further reduced America’s sense of urgency. The Delta variant, first discovered in India, may be more contagious than its predecessors. But so far, the leading vaccines in the West have proven to be effective in reducing hospitalization rates. The United Kingdom is now dominated by the Delta, but its death toll has hardly increased. This is good news. However, the history of the virus suggests that this may be a stage in a longer mutation journey. In most Western countries, a 70% vaccination rate seems feasible. Achieving 85% is ambitious-and may be beyond the reach of the United States.

However, compared to that hill, the rest of the world looks like the Himalayas. Biden and his G7 counterparts won applause earlier this month for a global pledge of 870 million vaccines. That’s better than nothing.but They are too few And their distribution will take too long. This year the United States will only distribute half of the 500 million pledged. Therefore, the West promised to meet far less than one-fifth of the world’s 11 billion needs. China and Russia may add at least as many vaccines, albeit at a lower efficiency. This is not only a geopolitical opportunity missed by the West, but also a virus risk faced by its citizens.

Cost-benefit analysis is difficult to grasp.International Monetary Fund Expert estimate By mid-2022, vaccinating most parts of the world will cost US$50 billion. The West has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mark global well-being. In February of this year, Biden signed a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, which has attracted criticism from many economists, calling it too large. With only 3% of it, the West can win the gratitude of billions of people. In football, Biden stands in front of an open goal. If global vaccination is prioritized, supply constraints will soon be eased.

Politics explains most of the hesitation in the West. Leaders worry that populist attacks will incur huge subsidies for foreigners. However, this caution comes with risks.This Delta variant Already accounted for one-third of new infections in the United States and is growing in continental Europe. If there are new variants, another winter blockade will be imminent. Good luck seeking re-election in this situation. Western democracies will no longer be so cautious.

edward.luce@ft.com

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