A summit of government ministers is trying to tackle the inequities of Covid-19 vaccine distribution that could cost millions of lives.
If the Group of Seven summit in the United Kingdom last week made anything clear, it is that those powers cannot be trusted to end the urgent crises facing life on Earth — for humans and nonhumans alike. When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, the G7 nation-states reaffirmed their commitment to global vaccine apartheid through neoliberal governance, only slightly obscured under a guise of charitable offerings. The concessions are insufficient at best.
Amnesty International condemned the G7’s pledge to provide 1 billion doses to middle- and low-income countries as a “drop in the ocean.” G7 leaders failed to agree to waive vaccine intellectual property rules and commit to knowledge and technology sharing. Under the current medicine monopoly regime, it is projected to take until 2078 for the world’s poorest countries to vaccinate their populations. G7 countries are expected to vaccinate their populations by January 2022.
“We do not have a system that protects against unequal access.”
Later this week, government ministers from many of the countries that will suffer most — and have already suffered — from this abhorrent vaccine inequality are convening online alongside scientists and global health advocates to forge a different path out of the pandemic. The summit, hosted by Progressive International, recognizes vaccine internationalism as the necessary order of the day. Politicians from states including Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, Kenya, Kerala — which is in India — and Argentina will attend, alongside Western parliamentarian progressive allies like the U.K.’s Jeremy Corbyn and Greece’s Yanis Varoufakis.
The question is whether a solidarity-based bloc can be established with sufficient power and cooperation to undo vaccine apartheid. The stakes could not be higher. Covid-19 is all but assured to shift from a pandemic into an endemic disease, with the victims of historic and ongoing colonialism left to die by the millions.
“We do not have a system that protects against unequal access,” Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla, an India-based coordinator with Progressive International, told me by email. She pointed to the disparities between the European Union and countries in Africa. “Consider this: the EU has already made a deal with BioNTech/Pfizer for 1.8 billion booster shots even as the entire continent of Africa has vaccinated less than 2 percent of its population with the first and second doses.”
Gandikota-Nellutla noted that at current rates, it will take nearly six decades for the world to be vaccinated — a statistic echoed by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of organizations including Amnesty International, Health Justice Initiative, Oxfam, Stop AIDS Campaign, and UNAIDS. She said, “We’re witnessing the ills of nationalism, imperialism, and racial capitalism all play out in the most grotesque of ways in the vaccine race.”
We know what vaccine nationalism looks like: Powerful countries, aided by World Trade Organization regulations, make deals with leviathan pharmaceutical companies to buy up and hoard vaccines. Poorer countries are forced into positions of dependence on insufficient charity; Big Pharma gets bigger. Meanwhile, intellectual property fetishist Bill Gates asserts, despite evidence from international scientists to the contrary, that poorer nations are per se incapable of developing, regulating, and distributing vaccines safely and efficiently.
A system of health care scarcity is developed by design, with results no less than genocidal. The basic means of surviving a pandemic are held as a political cudgel by the richest countries over the poorest.
At present, for example, Venezuela has been shut out of receiving any of the half a billion Pfizer vaccine doses President Joe Biden pledged to donate to COVAX, short for COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, the initiative purportedly committed to equitable international vaccine distribution. Despite Biden stating that vaccine donations “don’t include pressure for favors or potential concessions,” Venezuela has been shut out of COVAX access due to ongoing, brutal U.S. sanctions against the country.
“No country has the right to obstruct the access to health of any other,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, who will be attending the Summit for Vaccine Internationalism, said in a statement. “Obstructing a people’s access to vaccines during the pandemic is a crime against humanity and the free peoples of the world must unite and design mechanisms to avoid this medical apartheid, where a few have access to vaccines and others are excluded.”
Any sort of robust vaccine internationalism — in which collective potentials for vaccine production and distribution are truly unlocked — has so far been off the table. Yet we have seen a number of recent examples of production and sharing outside the top-down control of powers like the U.S. and the EU. At the end of May, Mexico received its first batches of locally produced AstraZeneca vaccines and sent half the consignment to its production partner, Argentina.
Alongside establishing a stronger political bloc to put pressure on Western nation-states and the WTO, the upcoming summit could see agreements made for future vaccine production and sharing partnerships, which eschew precarious dependence on the world’s richest countries.
“This is not going to be another talking shop,” David Adler, general coordinator for Progressive International, tweeted, referring to the summit. “These governments are really coming together to build something new — a system based on South-South cooperation, a serious plan to end the pandemic where the G7 refused to find one.”
As Gandikota-Nellutla told me, inspiration for the “New International Health Order” that the summit aims to create can be found in the New International Economic Order first proposed in the 1970s. The plan, introduced by a number of poorer nations to challenge the post-war economic colonialism of the West, was adopted by the United Nations in 1974.
“Our very survival is at stake.”
As with vaccine internationalism, the idea of the New International Economic Order was to foster greater cooperation between heavily exploited countries, while ensuring states’ sovereignty over their resources, and a dramatic overhaul of the rules and procedures of unequal international trade, particularly as related to commodities. Nearly half a century later, and aside from a few concessions, the plan has never been even close to fully realized; U.S. hegemony and the neoliberal order of corporate globalization and extractivism won the day.
The prospect of a New International Health Order may seem equally beyond reach, yet the extraordinary circumstances of this pandemic have, in a number of ways, created openings for previously foreclosed political economic shifts. In the U.S. alone, although too short-lived and too temporary, pandemic exigencies led to eviction moratoria and fair unemployment benefits.
The government leaders and advocates meeting to build vaccine internationalism are all too aware of the urgency of the project.
“Our very survival is at stake,” Gandikota-Nellutla told me. “Not only are we set on resolving vaccine access in our countries in the present pandemic, but strengthening the foundations of a world order that will not allow such injustices to ever occur again.”