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Vaccine envy

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

When I arrived at our usual Indian restaurant to pick up a takeout order, I was puzzled to hear shouting and laughter. The chairs were still up on the tables, as they had been for nearly a year, except for one table in the corner, where three elderly couples were hooting and hollering, clinking glasses in toasts, and celebrating as if World War III had just ended. Which, for them, it had. The COVID vaccines are rolling out now across the U.S., but with demand still far outstripping supply, we now have outbreaks of vaccine envy. Envy is understandable: These miraculous shots confer nearly total protection against hospitalization and death, and can parole us from the lonely gloom of our COVID prisons. Still, by June, every American who wants a jab should be able to get one, and by this summer, there should be clinking glasses everywhere.

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Liberation will come with a caveat. Millions of Americans may resist vaccination, slowing or blocking true herd immunity. That would keep the virus circulating and mutating — raising the risk of a variant that could elude current vaccines and reinfect those who’ve already had COVID. This may be already happening in Brazil and South Africa. Since the U.S. and a few other wealthy countries have bought up nearly all of the available vaccine doses, much of the world is likely to remain unvaccinated into 2022. Not a single person has been vaccinated so far in 130 countries with a total population of 2.5 billion. Why should Americans care? Our shared humanity should suffice, but there’s self-interest, too. If billions remain unprotected, new mutations will continue to arise — and we may wind up with outbreaks of COVID-22 or COVID-23, new restrictions, and a need for new vaccines. The coronavirus has reminded us how deeply interconnected all 7.6 billion of us are, whether we like it or not.

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