Roberta N. Haar

The disunifying effect of Vaccine Wars Across the Atlantic

28 mei 2020

We are all cleaning out our closets in this lockdown period. One of my neighbors found a Special Edition of The New York Times from Sunday the 16th of September 2001, which had been lovingly saved over the years. Still unable to throw it away, he passed it on to me.

Reading it these nineteen years later, painted stark pictures of two different global crisis responses. In the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States a real sense of “we are in this together” unity infused the Western world. This accord sits in direct contrast with the disunity affecting Transatlantic relations today. This disparity led me to ask, how the current state of affairs emerged, which includes an international blame game, interstate fights over personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccine battles? And, in general, why hasn’t this global crisis brought the world together like crises in the past?

Vaccine Nationalism
Two particularly provoking measures were Trump’s attempts to buy exclusive access to a coronavirus vaccine being developed by the German company CureVac and the Defense Production Act against 3M, designed to force a maker of protective medical equipment to prioritize U.S. orders. European outrage bubbled over when a shipping container of masks on its way to Berlin was redirected. In response, the mayor of Berlin tweeted, “The actions of the U.S. president do not just betray a lack of solidarity, they are inhumane and irresponsible.” Although there is no evidence that the U.S. was involved in redirecting the shipment, the damage to Transatlantic relation is clear, with allies arguing that America is not playing fair.

Similarly, in mid-May, the French Drug company Sanofi had to clarify the meaning of its CEO’s comments that any vaccine would go to the United States first. That market-driven forces would steer the actions of a French firm provoked an uproar in France and outraged the French government, which had pledged to develop a vaccine with other members of the European Union via a worldwide pledging marathon. The Trump administration did not join this joint effort, instead preferring to maximize its demand for scarce equipment through other means. It is clear that the absence of a collective global effort to distribute medical supplies to the countries that need them most has led to feuds between allies.         

Narcissists are in charge
Part of the reasons for such disunity is at the leadership level. The world appears to be over-represented by narcissists, who rise to power through fame and bluster rather than to build a convincing track record of governing. At the institutional level, a media that focuses on the outlandish behavior of self-promotion and the claims of a superhuman status add to the rise of the narcissistic leadership type.

At the societal level, studies by psychologists point to a general increase in self-centeredness since the 1970s, to the level that some argue that America is experiencing a “Narcissism Epidemic,” which is in turn fueling a material and glossy-image obsessed culture. The rise of social-networking, and platforms such Twitter, certainly provide outlets for individuals who seek to be famous-for-being-famous.

These trends translate into a drift towards a less empathetic culture—one that values image and the consumer attributes of success over the development of social capital and civic virtue. A selfish culture that Robert Putnam calls the “I” culture as opposed to the “We” culture of America’s past. As I wrote in my column in December last year, Putnam documented a shift in American culture starting in the 1960s that has resulted in more incivility, shallower values and a decline in the caring for others.

Leadership and the Coronavirus Crisis
Could it also be that Putnam’s identification of a precipitous decline in social capital in the U.S. is part of the reason why there are fewer compassionate leaders there today? Moreover, how will this narcissistic variant of leadership affect society going forward?

In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, it is also clear that calm, emotionally compassionate leadership, as practiced by Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, saved lives.  In fact, several countries led by women have significantly lower deaths rates than in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Brazil and the United States.

The 75th Memorial Day
On Sunday the 24th of May, the American Cemetery in Margraten commemorated is 75th Memorial Day since the end of the Second World War.  The fact that because of covid-19 only a handful of people were in attendance, including the King of The Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, and the Ambassador of the United States, Pete Hoekstra, did not lessen the solemnity of the occasion nor the power of the missing man formation of fighter jets that flew over my garden.

But, I did wonder how many Dutch and Americans watched it on television and saw the unity on display in the cemetery?  If no one pays attention to this outpouring of thanks and remembrance for the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice, will the enduring ties that bind Americans and the Dutch together generation after generation be maintained by future generations?

Self-reflection and the promotion of compassion
In America, also on Memorial Day Sunday, the New York Times came out with another Special Edition, this time its front page listed 1,000 names of Americans who had lost their lives to covid-19. No photos, no articles, the only additional text being the ages of the dead and the headline, which read “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable loss.”

In today’s climate of disunity, I doubt that my neighbor will go out and buy this special edition and save it for nearly twenty years in his house as a sign of his empathy for the Americans who lost their lives in the corona crisis.  We should all be sad about that fact. And then, begin to think about ways to rebuild a renewed sense of unity through our own acts of compassion and empathy for our fellow members of the Transatlantic community.