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The Pandemic and Our Broken Social Contracts

Many of the norms and institutions underpinning contemporary society were forged in and for a bygone era, and now have created a mismatch between people's expectations and their reality. It is little wonder that the pandemic has highlighted the erosion of people's sense of mutual obligation and social trust.

LONDON – The emergence of the Omicron variant just before the holiday season has led to another surge of infections and hospitalizations in the world’s rich economies, renewing the focus on the issue of vaccine hesitancy (or, in many cases, outright refusal, such as with the Serb tennis player Novak Djokovic). The unvaccinated remain unnecessarily vulnerable, and the exasperated double- and triple-dosed are wondering when enough will be enough. Worse, billions of people in developing countries still do not have access to vaccines, representing a catastrophic, ongoing failure of the international system.

In this moment of acute crisis, policymakers must wrestle with the most immediate problem: the unvaccinated, who will continue to make up a large majority of deaths and hospitalizations, provide the virus with ample opportunities to acquire potentially dangerous new mutations.

But beyond that, policymakers must also address the root of the problem. Vaccine hesitancy is not an isolated issue. Rather, it is a symptom of the primary malady of our age: a broken social contract, which in many countries has led to a collapse of public trust in institutions.

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