We truly live in a mad, mad, mad world. Although, unlike the 1963 film of that name, our circumstances are no comedy. But, like the film, on the centre-stage of the world today are money and a frantic search involving many people.
The search, of course, is for a vaccine to immunise humanity against the latest in a range of Corona viruses that have afflicted us over the years. It is being conducted by science workers the world over. And the money is what is now, belatedly, being poured into efforts to discover a vaccine.
Along the way, there have also been some rather sick comedy sequences provided by the present occupant of the White House in the United States. And we do not yet know whether the latest scientific findings have stopped Donald Trump from taking daily doses of hydroxychloroquine.
Trump has also withdrawn his country’s $450 million subscription to the World Health Organisation, although without mentioning that the US was then already $196 million in arrears to the WHO. But the US was not alone in being tardy with payments: as of the end of March this year, 151 of the 194 member states collectively owed $473 million in unpaid dues, China topping this list at $57 million.
Yet this is the major international body responsible for the health of all people. As its constitution notes: "The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition."
But the WHO is severely hampered in trying to achieve this admirable goal because it has no real authority. Established in the wake of World War 2 the WHO can only advise and try to persuade governments to work towards the goal of universal health care, a goal to which most of humanity is also almost certainly committed.
The organisation can help to strengthen national health services, but only at the request of relevant governments. The same applies to providing technical assistance and emergency aid.
Although it has played the most prominent role in the virtual eradication, in many regions, of diseases such as polio and measles, it relies for funding on what are, essentially, paltry contributions from some of the wealthiest nations on earth, along with donations from the private sector. This makes for an annual budget of some $2.5 billion.
However, in what sometimes seems like panic reactions across the globe, funding has poured in for research for a Covid-19 vaccine and for emergency aid for some of the economic devastation following lockdown reactions. And this, in turn, has had a potentially disastrous effect on existing health and anti-poverty campaigns, with funding for them being diverted.
According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, 5,600 mobile clinics and community-based centres in 64 countries had closed down by last month. Earlier this month, aid agency Oxfam announced that it was closing down operations in 18 countries and reducing its activities in 48 more.
According to several international agencies, such actions will have profound effects on millions of working people in the poorest areas of the world. These will range from severe hunger and the lack of needed medication to higher infant mortality and the possible eruption of further epidemics that will, once again, devastate the poor.
The situation is dire and it is easy to forget that it was potentially avoidable. Take a widely read academic article 13 years ago that asked: "Inevitable or avoidable? Despite the lessons of history, the world is not yet ready to face the next great plague."
This article quoted William Hanage, then research associate in the epidemiology unit at Imperial College, London. He noted: "We can be pretty certain that the probability of another flu pandemic is 100%, though we cannot say when exactly."
Hanage was not alone. Virologists and epidemiologists have for years postulated that the various epidemics of recent times, could, courtesy largely of trans-national air travel, become pandemics, afflicting almost every part of the planet. Especially after the Covid-19 related SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002/3, Corona viruses became, in the words of Dr Peter Daszak, a "clear and present danger".
The WHO was very well aware of this fact and that public health has long been neglected. Help was called for, but research and health care costs money. So, in our mad world, while there was not enough funding for the health of people there was more than enough for armaments to kill them.
Last year, military spending reached a new global high of nearly 2,000 billion US dollars ($1 917 billion). As the Stockholm International Peace Institute points out, this equates to roughly $249 (R4 614) for every person on earth or $218 (R4,040) an hour. The US was the top spender at $732 billion, well ahead of China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The annual budget of the WHO fades to nothing in contrast. As, indeed, does to estimated $153 billion in usually conditional handouts classified as aid from the rich to lower income countries. These are among the facts that have surfaced in the tumult caused by Covid-19. They should surely be part of the reckoning when it comes to rebuilding a post pandemic world.
Terry Bell is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, social activist and sometime teacher. He has catholic interests but specialises in political and economic analysis and labour.