Spring brings fresh optimism for COVID vaccine

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Vaccine clinic signs. Image credit: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

They're as restless as a willow in a windstorm. The giddiness people express after getting their first jab came unexpectedly. It's a pandemic of public delight, the way people burst onto a dance floor from the sidelines. It's unlike the loud fun of gatherings at bars or parks. That sometimes has a jut-jawed sense of defiance. We will have fun, dammit. Like much exuberance, it can be irritating -- so it's generated a fine word, vaxhole, for people who won't shut up. Cue the op-eds and circulating WhatsApp announcements.

In retrospect, I feel I may've burbled on too much last week about the miracle of vaccines, though please note I at least haven't proclaimed my own first shot (which may come right after I file this column -- arrgh, just couldn't contain it, sorry). What I mean is the swift onset of a bevy of vaccines may be less a triumph of science than a loss for grungy economics. Big pharma has resisted developing vaccines (AIDS, malaria, etc.) mainly because it's more profitable to produce ongoing treatments like retrovirals, especially when the markets are in impoverished countries. The pressure of the pandemic overcame that pattern, along with billions in public money thrown at them.

The downers in the crowd (bless them always) will observe that there aren't enough shots for everyone everywhere and aren't coming online fast enough. Poor countries will have to wait till 2024. And rich ones like us may also get cut off, if the makers in Europe or India close the tap till they serve their own voters. No surprise, if governments there want to survive.

There's a solution so obvious, you could say there isn't even a problem. Share the blueprints and patents with anyone who can use them at low, no, or even significant cost, and they'll cover their populations and others too. Bangladesh has a company that could vaccinate its population in four to six months, then supply others. So stop the presses: "Gargantuan quandary utterly vaporizes!"

But the vaxhole who heads big pharma's lobby group says that'd be "a very bad signal to the future. You signal that if you have a pandemic, your patents are not worth anything." He's the doctor at an accident or disaster who lets victims die till he negotiates a good fee for his services, which were largely funded -- his education, his office expenses -- by those expiring around him.

What kind of idiot would give away gold mines for nothing? Jonas Salk, who declined to patent his polio vaccine. Or Banting and Best, who, with a Canadian sense of irony, sold the insulin patent for a buck. When savvier business minds gagged or voiced dismay, perhaps B&B just hummed: It might as well be spring.

Mental what? Beside his embarrassingly rebuffed acknowledgment of climate change at the Tory convention last week, leader Erin O'Toole celebrated his mental health policy. It's a bit lite (a three-digit suicide hotline, whoo-whoo) and even Doug Ford got there first. Ford kicked off his era by slashing public sector programs and jobs and, since everyone knows losing your income makes people crazy, immediately announcing a mental health program largely for the market he'd created. This is a roundabout way of blaming the victim, since it focuses on them versus those who caused their anxiety, depression etc.

It also annoys me that mental health is now a Tory bumper sticker. The Mental Health Movement (there was literally such a thing) emerged in response to shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War and similar psychic carnage in the Second World War. They were determined, says sociology prof emeritus Dick Flacks, "to use the insights of psychology and the social sciences and common decency, to transform society." Do note the component, "transform." They saw mental health as "involving everything that affected human well-being in society."

They'd have said not just that mental health is as important as physical health but also: you can't be mentally healthy when you're dead from COVID, or ill from having to work without sick pay, or warehoused in a crappy long-term-care home. They were social revolutionaries, not right-wing slackers looking to mop up the messes they created through austerity etc., with a hotline or two.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

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