COVID colonialism: Vaccines are coming, but first to the rich     Follow

This picture taken on November 17, 2020 shows a syringe and a bottle reading “Vaccine Covid-19”. According to the World Health Organization, some 42 “candidate vaccines” against the novel coronavirus Covid-19 are undergoing clinical trials. AFP


In what could be the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been given the glad tiding that vaccines for the most dangerous viral disease in living memory are finally here.

First the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer together with its German research partner BioNTech announced it has found a 90 percent effective vaccine for the SARS Cov-2 virus or the new coronavirus that has killed more than 1.35 million people and afflicted more than 55.6 million people worldwide.  In a fresh statement, the company on Tuesday announced that its vaccine was almost 95 percent effective. The statement came days after Moderna, another leading US pharmaceutical giant, announced that its vaccine was 95 percent effective.

The happy news apart, the undercurrent appears to be a tough competition among pharmaceutical companies to hit the market first with a COVID vaccine.  Sadly, there is little sign of altruism in the statements from either of the companies, although in the poor and developing nations, billions of affected people, like the proverbial drowning man, clutch at the straw of hope in any vaccine news. 
In August this year, they were elated when Russia announced it had become the first to discover a COVID vaccine.  There was also good news from China where an experimental vaccine was being distributed among sections of its citizens after it was found to be safe and effective.

However, in the scientifically advanced West, there was scepticism regarding the vaccines produced by Russia and China as the two nations have not shared the details of their research with Western scientists for a peer review. That they decided not to share the details of their vaccines with the West vouches for growing COVID vaccine nationalism, which is defined by the Rand Corporation as a situation in which countries push to get first access to a supply of vaccines, potentially hoarding key components of vaccine production.  

In poorer nations, as people await the vaccine with bated breath amid hopes against hopes and ask “when will we get the vaccines and will we be able to afford it if they come”, the century’s worst health crisis is being aggravated not only by vaccine nationalism but also by vaccine capitalism with all its attendant socioeconomic impacts.
We thought the pandemic was a great leveller when it began to spread across the world, leaving no nation untouched, rich or poor, north or south, East or West. As developed Western nations struggled to cope with the rising cases, COVID patients were seen even sleeping on the ground in hospital corridors, as has often been the case in developing nations.

The great leveller probably stops at where the suffering counts. But in terms of economic hardships, obviously the poor suffered the most. While the rich nations managed to minimize the damage to their economies with stimulus packages, the poor nations’ economies experienced a free fall.  With lockdowns hitting the poorest the hardest, they have little money to buy food. Access to online food and medicine may be now part of the rich and middle income lifestyle, but for the poorest of the poor, it is a luxury they cannot even think of. While the rich use several disposable facemasks or a costly N-95 facemask a day, the poor people wash even their disposable facemasks to use them for weeks or a month. In the final analysis, the so-called great COVID leveller is increasingly proving to be a sheer myth.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought the world’s nations had finally realised that irrespective of who we were, we needed to come together to find a cure or we all would have to die together. This was a welcome thought for vaccine socialism. 

But far from it, what we saw in the afterglow of the recent vaccine announcement is vaccine capitalism. The richer you are the greater your chances of getting the jab and the sooner it will be. Britain alone has prebooked 355 million doses of potential coronavirus vaccine from seven developers. Already such preorders from rich nations top one billion and the first vials rolling out of the production process will go to the richer nations. The situation reminds us of the Titanic. It was the upper class people who were given access to lifeboats first when the ship began to sink. Research on the Titanic sinking confirms the death rate decreased as the socio-economic and the cabin class increased.  

The poor and developing nations may get a vaccine, if they are lucky, only by mid-2021. Otherwise it will be only around 2022.  This disparity in COVID vaccine distribution has already laid the foundation for COVID colonialism that allows the richer nations to gain an early lead in the race to revive their virus-affected economies, while pushing the poorer nations further down the economic misery and making them economic slaves of the richer nations. 

As the vaccine breakthroughs from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna stirred up hopes of people suffering from COVID-19 or living in mortal fear of being afflicted with the deadly virus, most western television channels with a global reach focused their attention more on the stock market upswing than on a discourse on a fair and equitable distribution system to make the vaccine available to the world’s 7.2 billion people. 

The lack of advanced cold storage infrastructure facilities is being cited as a hurdle to make the vaccine available to poorer nations. But a bigger stumbling block is the World Trade Organisation’s TRIPS  -- Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. The capitalist nations aggressively adhere to this provision to guard the patent of their inventions and discoveries, including lifesaving medicines and vaccines in a clear case of putting patent and profits before people. At present some 42 COVID vaccines are going through final trials.

While the WTO is expected to meet today to revive the failed talks on the TRIPS, it is heartening to note that India, South Africa, Kenya and little Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) are leading a global campaign to circumvent the TRIPS and gain access to the vaccine formula to mass produce the vaccine and distribute it at an affordable price. At Tuesday’s virtual BRICS summit, India and South Africa sought the support of the grouping’ other members -- Brazil, Russia and China – to overcome the WTO hurdle.  In the summit’s final declaration, the five nations said they “will work to ensure that, when [the vaccine is] available, it is disseminated in a fair, equitable and affordable basis.” Russia and China told the summit, they were willing to share their vaccine formulas with India and South Africa.

Perhaps, the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative also offers some hope for poorer nations through what could be described as a kind of vaccine socialism. Some 82 countries have signed into the WHO’s COVAX programme which aims to raise enough money to buy at least 700 million vaccine shots at a discounted price from a ‘humane’ supplier to be distributed among the needy member-nations. 

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