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The Distribution of Vaccines Using Air Transport: A View from Homo Philosophicus

This humane goal could be achieved only through the veil of ignorance of a Homo Philosophicus.  But is this reality? 

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal 

The fairest rules are those to which everyone would agree if they did not know how much power they would have ~ John Rawls 

Much has been written and debated on what the most equitable distribution of vaccines among the 7.8 billion people of the world would be - that would optimally conquer the COVID-19 virus and bring the world back to normalcy. There is one unavoidable factor in this equation: it is only through air transport that this distribution could be done effectively and as speedily as possible.  In a webinar of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) conducted in October 2020 one panelist said that it would take 8000 Boeing 747 (Jumbo) aircraft to carry vaccines to all 7.8 billion people in the world.  Whatever type of aircraft is used to transport the vaccines, this capacity is humongous and would need some kind of equitable regulatory persuasion, particularly because  this brings to bear certain ineluctable factors: would individual interests of countries stymie this process; could there not be global consensus that transcends national interests; would competition and market forces stand in the way of a humane and equitable distribution of the vaccine that would give equality of opportunity for survival of both the rich and the poor across the world? 

All this might rest with the leaders of the world and the extent of power they wield in their choice between looking after the interest of their people and the commercial entities that seek profit first.  But is there a way out of self interest in this equation? At least theoretically and hypothetically, the answer might lie in an ideal but seemingly unrealistic concept of a categorical imperative with a focus on human dignity and the equality of rights that stand against the more worldly self interest of utilitarianism. 

In an earlier article I said: '”no one is safe until everyone is safe' has been the WHO Director-General’s mantra throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. What does this mean for the provision of vaccines to people living in areas under the control of armed groups?” The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that its “primary goal is to ensure that refugees are included in the national COVID-19 surveillance, preparedness, and response activities. UNHCR’s preparedness measures will protect refugees, displaced people, and their host communities before, during and after this global health emergency” adding that it cannot do this alone. The rationale offered by UNHCR is that “ensuring refugees are included in the vaccine rollout is key to ending the pandemic. Excluding refugees, other displaced people or non-nationals from vaccination plans carries the risk of ongoing transmission in these populations, with spillovers into the national population.”  In a later article I said: “ the Director General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has issued a serious warning that the world is on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure” in sharing COVID-19 vaccines. He is urging countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world”. 

Hypothetically, and theoretically, this appears to be an issue for Homo Philosophicus. 

Quassim Cassam writes that “homo philosophicus is a model epistemic citizen who can discover what his beliefs and other attitudes are by establishing what they ought rationally to be”. In her remarks to the UNWTO Global Tourism Crisis Committee Meeting on 18 January 2021 Dr. Fang Liu, Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) said: “given the current global production capacity of COVID-19 vaccines, there is limited access to COVID-19 vaccines, and countries need to prioritize vaccination for populations at risk. What this tells us is that vaccines will not bring significant relief to the world, or to air transport or tourism sector bottom lines, for some time to come Dr. Liu emphasized that there were few signs of near-term relief ahead for travel and tourism markets, given that the world is still faced with limited supplies of vaccines, and insufficient data on the transmission of the virus by persons that have been vaccinated. 

Unlike other sectoral interests that concern the world, this is an issue involving the entire world and the welfare of all its citizens, requiring an approach that is bereft of insidious and invasive influences of competition, market forces and national interests. This requires what contemporary philosopher John Rawls calls “the veil of ignorance”.  

Ben Davies, a research fellow at Oxford University writes: “John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance is probably one of the most influential philosophical ideas of the 20th century. The Veil of Ignorance is a way of working out the basic institutions and structures of a just society. According to Rawls, working out what justice requires demands that we think as if we are building society from the ground up, in a way that everyone who is reasonable can accept. We therefore need to imagine ourselves in a situation before any particular society exists; Rawls calls this situation the Original Position. To be clear, Rawls does not think we can actually return to this original position, or even that it ever existed. It is a purely hypothetical idea: our job in thinking about justice is to imagine that we are designing a society from scratch. The idea is that social justice will be whatever reasonable people would agree to in such a situation. We can then start thinking about how to make our actual society look more like the ideal picture we have imagined”. 

The consensus among the aviation community seems to be that the situation being what it is – that a satisfactory degree of people being vaccinated worldwide will take some time, although it is plausible that short distance international travel may start by the Fall this year, transatlantic and other long distance inter-continental air travel may not commence until well into 2022 if at all.  It is also believed that the two critical factors that would revive air transport are demand and customer mindset focused on safety and  health.  For these factors to be returned to their status quo ante, widespread global vaccination would be a priority. 

Ideally therefore, albeit far from realistically, the issue of global vaccination would need the world to come together in prioritizing air transport as the conduit and supporting the industry’s sustenance until the vaccination process is fully carried out.  In other words, by applying the veil of ignorance by starting from the ground up even if on a hypothetical basis. preferential measures and safety nets should be brought into effect wherever necessary to ensure seamless delivery.  WHO’s COVAX Vaccine Access initiative is a good starting point for consideration and an inquiry into global viability. This would effectively preclude the moral bankruptcy averred to by the Director of WHO.  United  Nations Resolution 73/338 designated 2021 as the International Year of Peace and Trust.  Additionally, intrinsic to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations is collectivity of effort by all States. The pandemic gives the world an opportunity to give effect to these goals rather than relegating them to the annals of failed human interaction. 

There are some other considerations for States to build from the ground up: the global community should identify priorities for a post COVID aviation world on the basis of Resolution 73/338; States should not agree with ICAO and WHO recommendations at international conferences and go back home and do the opposite; Treaties alone will not do the trick; revival of air transport should be more intricately linked to efforts on climate change; the fact that emission  requirements are only for airlines should be questioned; Why not others in aviation? Should there be increased focus on automation, not only at check in but also on immigration queues which are still clogging the traffic flow? Would an additional vaccine certificate clog immigration queues? should there be a call for revival through resolution of crisis through State aid; return to a bounce back be based on scenario planning; should we face the future with anticipatory intelligence? 

On the subject of safety and security, the veil of ignorance should conceptually be applied to the realization that there are no global cyber laws and until the status quo remains there is no purpose in addressing the restart of air transport from a security perspective on a piecemeal basis.  There is also no purpose in addressing security without taking a hard look at existing regulations and laws. 

The only aviation law applicable globally to the pandemic  applies to communicable diseases spread through “air navigation”. Air transport is not only air navigation. ICAO has appropriately designated 2021 as the year of security culture.  This may carry with it the misleading nuance (which ICAO is not to be blamed for) that each of the 193 States should have a security culture “according to their particular circumstances”.  The security culture, when air transport is restarted, and the status quo ante that prevails should be a global one applicable ex aequo to all. The pandemic is a global problem which requires States to transcend local boundaries to seek a global solution as enunciated by the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which is contained in General Assembly Resolution 55/2 of 8 September 2000, recognizes that, in addition to separate responsibilities of States to their individual societies, they have a collective responsibility to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level. 

This humane goal could be achieved only through the veil of ignorance of a Homo Philosophicus.  But is this reality? 

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