Some things have gone wrong in the European Union, others well, since the pandemic has taken hold of the world. But what has become clear for some months now is the degree of incompetence of the European authorities and local governments, which are now unnecessarily prolonging the pandemic and claiming lives. A crisis like this relentlessly separates the fair-weather politicians from the truly competent. And to our horror, we must realize that most of our politicians are only fair-weather politicians.
Starting with the back and forth on lockdowns, which some countries and states apply more strictly, others less so, the wheat began to separate from the chaff. Unfortunately, such a virus knows no national borders, and keeping it open here and locking it down there is akin to setting up a pee area in a swimming pool. It doesn’t stay local.
We in the West don’t need to kid ourselves, the U.S. has also failed miserably here, as the number of deaths clearly shows. China and other Asian countries, on the other hand, have enforced a strict lockdown without hesitation, with the success that these countries have not only had relatively few deaths, the countries have also been fully open again for months and the restrictive measures have been lifted.
The EU now looks enviously at countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States, which are far ahead of the vaccination efforts of EU countries with huge vaccination efforts. For example, as of April 8, 2021, the U.S. has vaccinated more than 171 million doses, with 19.6 percent of the population (64.4 million) now fully vaccinated. Germany, on the other hand, is currently at 15.4 million doses administered, and at 4.63 million people, only 5.6 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Austria has a similar rate, with 5240,000 people or 5.9 percent of the population fully vaccinated after 1.87 million doses.
What is the EU doing wrong? The question is justified, since three of the vaccines (BionTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca) were developed in Europe.
Is the EU too stupid?
Mark Schieritz of Die Zeit also asked himself this question and came to the conclusion that the EU is not too stupid, but too nice. Unlike the aforementioned countries with high vaccination rates, the EU has honored contractual agreements to supply vaccines to Israel, the UK and the US. Thus, the already scarce vaccine has gone abroad, which we then lack here. The EU, he said, is therefore too nice and the only region in the world that abides by international rules, while other countries are very nationalistic and impose export bans. This is not entirely true, because India and Russia also produce vaccines and distribute them to other countries.
But this seems to be a nice fairy tale of the ‘nice EU’ and the selfish other countries, if you look at the more precise mess with the vaccine procurement by the EU. In his article Vaccines: A Very European Disaster, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman analyzed the background, starting with the procurement process and the risk aversion shown by the European bureaucracy.
Krugman draws a definition as a comparison: He quotes H.L. Mencken’s definition of puritanism as “the nagging fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” Similarly, he says, European civil service and politics seem similarly beset by the fear that someone, somewhere – be it a pharmaceutical company or a Greek public employee – might get away with something.
That’s why they haggled over prices with vaccine manufacturers, made sure that in the event of a failure in vaccine research and production, the manufacturers would bear the risk, and bet on the cheapest vaccine, AstraZeneca, which would then come late and not in sufficient quantity. In addition, they also waited until all 27 EU countries had agreed, and only then signed contracts with manufacturers. Such efforts took months, during which time vaccine manufacturers were up in the air in terms of speedy investment in laboratories and production facilities.
The USA, Israel and the United Kingdom have taken a completely different approach. There, a problem is simply slain with money, even if there is a risk that some percent of the sums invested will be lost. But this is precisely what creates investment security for pharmaceutical companies and allows them to invest fully in the expansion of production facilities.
What the EU is missing is not that we should become less nice, but to become more risk tolerant and thank in first principles. The problem at hand is not spending a few tens of millions more euros of taxpayers’ money on vaccine procurement because we sign contracts too early, and thus with manufacturers who will not succeed with the development in the end. The real problem is that people are dying today and the economy is in the doldrums, costing the national economy hundreds of billions.
Instead of haggling with the manufacturers for months and offering them gagging contracts, the EU should have started already in March but at the latest in April 2020, when the lockdowns started, but also the researchers already had the evaluated gene sequence of the virus, then a few days later it was known how the vaccine has to look like, and the clinical tests started, already at this point the focus of the Eurocrats should have started on the expansion of vaccine production capacities.
Mark Schieritz of Die Zeit himself says that this takes several months before all permits can be obtained and construction can begin, but these are homegrown problems. In a crisis, emergency laws can also be used to summarily suspend regulations and thus speed up processes and wave them through. But no, the euro and bureaucrats are in on the act. They have little to lose. Their jobs are safe, as are their salaries, while the rest of the continent goes down the drain.
First Principle thinking is about trying to understand the real problem you are trying to solve. In a crisis situation, it is not about saving taxpayers’ money, but about saving lives and reviving the economy. But our governments and bureaucrats have lost sight of that. They follow the self-imposed processes without deviating from them because they are afraid of being prosecuted later for shortcuts or lost tax money. And separate fair-weather politicians from real leaders who know what is at stake.