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Why Has the EU’s Vaccination Rollout Been a Disaster?

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In June 19, 2020 MSNBC’s anchor Chris Hayes dedicated a time in his program to compare the responses of the US and the EU to address the raging pandemic, at the moment the US was having far more confirmed daily cases than the EU and many were criticizing the American response to the pandemic. In his show, Hayes argue that comparatively speaking the European Union had succeeded where the US had not, categorically saying “Europe has contained the virus, we have not”.

Flash forward eight months and probably Chris Hayes is regretting saying those words. Right now, Europe and the US are living in two different worlds: while President Biden has told the American people that vaccines would be available for all adults in early May, Europeans are bracing for a new set of sweeping lockdowns with experts saying that a third wave “has already begun” while their EU bureaucrats fail at developing fast vaccination programs.

The developed world has started to make significant advances at their vaccination programs, United States has delivered more than 105 million doses, with 20.7% of the total population having received at least one dose, the UK (to the scorn of Brussels) has delivered more than 23 million first doses (almost a third of the country) and Israel has implemented the most successful vaccination program in the world, with 55% of the population having received at least a first dose.

Europe, on the other hand, is lagging dangerously behind. According to Europe’s CDC, in Germany (world famous for their “efficiency”), only 8.5% of the population has received even a single dose, France follows closely with 8.2%, while countries like Bulgaria and Latvia barely managing to get a single jab to more than 4% of their population.

Despite Hayes’ bold statement on July of last year, it is clear that the EU has not suppressed the virus, with other developed nations have move forward with a vaccination rollout program that ensures their citizens their lives would go back to normal as soon as possible. Sure, Europe did fare better than the U.S in some responses to the crisis, specially during the early stages. However, after a year of COVID the US and the UK appear to be closer to the end of the pandemic than the beleaguered Europe.

Europe has had a deeply unsatisfactory vaccine rollout program, highlighting many of the structural weaknesses of the Union (EFE)
More lockdowns, no vaccines

Many countries in Europe have been enforcing lockdowns for months as a way to curb the pandemic and the infection rates in the continent, specially since mid-december of last year when a new, more contagious, strain of the virus was discovered in Britain.

Countries including Spain, Czech Republic, Belgium, Portugal, and Ireland have some significant restrictions in place until late April or early May. While Germany and Italy are preparing themselves for the possibility of a third wave of COVID (and more restrictions) as the number of daily infections rises significantly.

It would be understandable for Europe to continue having this set of restrictive measures without an end in sight if there were no vaccines or if we were at the beginning of March 2020. However, it is impossible to justify the inefficiency of Europe to develop a successful vaccination program when other developed countries have had far more success. Even little Britain, who was supposed to be isolated and defenseless after Brexit has had a far greater vaccination program than the competent, reasonable, Brussels bureaucrats.

Europe’s plan for vaccination is a huge embarrassment. As explained in a great piece at Politico Europe the U.S developed one of the most astonishing partnerships with the private sector to develop vaccines in record-breaking time (Operation Warpspeed), the UK quickly negotiated deals with pharmaceutical companies to make sure they were their citizens would get their vaccines first, on the other hand, the EU went into a long negotiation process and signed its contracts with AstraZeneca almost three months later than the Brits.

The lengthy negotiation has shown one of the structural failures of the EU: its over reliance on the political apparatus seated at Brussels. Most countries in the EU decided to hand over all of their negotiation power to the EU Commission, which then had to balance the interests of all 27 EU countries, while wielding their market power as a way to ensure a cheap price tag in the vaccines. The commission succeeded, the vaccines are cheaper, but at what cost?

The problem with this is that even if some countries had the will to engage in faster negotiations with pharmaceuticals, the cooperative vaccination negotiation scheme made it impossible. Making the decision of EU Commissioner Ursula Van Der Leyen to play hardball with the drug companies a life changing event for hundreds of millions of europeans.

EU Commissioner, Ursula Von Der Leyen, has been under heavy fire for her handling of the EU vaccination rollout (EFE)

Even worst, many of the few vaccines that are available in Europe are still left unused. As some european leaders have casted doubts on the efficiency of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling it “quasi-ineffective” amongst people of over 65 years old, a claim that might not be the best thing to do if you want to implement an expansive vaccination rollout program in one of the most vaccine skeptic countries in a continent that has low confidence on vaccines.

So, to recap Europe’s strategy to deal with the virus: enforce strict lockdowns with no exit strategy, not being the main supporter of the ground-breaking Pfizer or ModeRNA vaccines, engage in a lengthy and unnecessary negotiation lead by an unelected bureaucrat that set the rollout program months behind, and cast doubts on one of the vaccines that the continent is relying on and that has been approved by medical experts.

Lockdowns are harmful for society at the medium and long-term. They cause economic pain to everybody and cause heavy psychological strain on many, they are a short-term measure while the state develops a long-term exit strategy to the crisis. In Europe, however, it looks like the government’s where to keen in implementing lockdowns but not as sharp at implementing the silver bullet that could en with this crisis, vaccines.

History judges nations and leaders after evaluating the results of their policies in the long-run (not in the fit of the moment as Chris Hayes did) and the prospect does not look well for the leaders of the EU today. Almost the same number of deaths as the U.S, government and incompetence at delivering the vaccine that will certainly costs thousands of lives.

Despite many in the continent have had ambitions at playing a more independent and assertive geopolitical role in the world (looking at Macron here), the recent vaccination meltdown perfectly illustrates the slow and cumbersome nature of the European project. If anybody is expecting the EU to stand up and defend the global liberal order, well, it would probably be faster for them to get a vaccine in Germany.

Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.

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