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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 May 2021

Capitalism responsible for stark global Covid vaccine inequality

  (Click to enlarge)

Nick Hart, Black Country Socialist Party

The pandemic hasn't just exposed the class divide here in the UK. It's also brought many tensions and inequalities between nations in an already fractured world to the surface.

If the rapid spread of the virus across the planet owed a lot to the globalised nature of modern capitalism, then the 'vaccine nationalism' that's followed is a symptom of individual capitalist governments straining at the economic and political ties which bind them together.

While vaccination programmes are well underway in the UK, USA, and other developed capitalist nations, it's a different story in many of the world's poorer countries. So far, roughly one in four people are vaccinated in wealthier countries, while in the neocolonial world the figure is just one in 500.

Meanwhile, those governments in the neocolonial world who have been able to obtain vaccine doses have often found themselves spending more than their wealthier counterparts. Bangladesh and Uganda, for example, are paying more per dose for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine than the EU. This is for a vaccine that had its development 97% funded through UK and US government money!

Once vaccine doses have been supplied they then have to be administered to the population, which is made all the harder in countries where health services are under-resourced due to decades of governments being crippled with punitive debt repayments to the likes of the International Monetary Fund. African governments are now spending 50% more on servicing debt than they did pre-2020.

As a result, most African countries are not predicted to reach majority vaccination until mid-2023. And while India has been the world's largest producer of Covid vaccines, many states are now reporting shortages of doses, despite the government having imposed a ban on exports in late March.

While only a minority of the population is vaccinated in any one country, the ground will be prepared for future outbreaks there, causing further deaths and severe health problems as hospitals become overstretched. The continued presence of the virus there can also lead to mutations developing and spreading beyond its borders, as can be seen with the recent detection of an Indian variant in Britain.

Recognising these issues, the USA, EU, UK and others set up the Covax scheme to fund the purchase of vaccines for the developing world. While Covax hopes to have distributed 238 million doses by the middle of this year, it's estimated by that time that the US alone will be sitting on 300 million unused doses!

In Cuba, where the government has developed its own vaccines, the process has been hindered by the US trade embargo and blockade.

In many parts of Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America, China and Russia are plugging the gap by supplying their respective vaccines at a discounted price and helping set up local production facilities. Taking a leaf out of the British and American textbook for supplying humanitarian aid, this has been done with the aim of extracting economic and political favours from the governments of these countries at a later date.

In a bid to stop the US losing influence relative to its rival superpowers, the Biden government has now backed calls for patents to be waived on Covid vaccines. But this would only partly solve the problem.

After Biden used the Korean War-era Defence Production Act to follow the EU's lead in imposing export bans on the component parts and packaging used in the manufacture of vaccines, there are limits on how quickly production can begin in those parts of the world that don't currently have vaccine-manufacturing facilities. The Pfizer vaccine, for instance, includes 280 components from 86 suppliers based in 19 countries

As a result, the pharmaceutical companies are able to point the finger at individual governments hoarding vaccine doses and raw materials while they themselves guard their intellectual property 'rights' over the method for creating the different vaccines available with equal jealousy.

Even if the World Trade Organisation uses its powers to force the pharmaceutical companies to give up their patents on these vaccines, it could still take months for new factories to get up and running. During this time, the virus will be able to spread, mutate and claim lives in many countries currently under-equipped with vaccine doses.

Thanks to the pharmaceutical companies hoping to extract a handsome profit, and governments hoping to extract political gain, many of the world's poorest people will be left exposed to Covid for potentially years to come.

For all the capitalists' talk about their system being the most efficient way of producing and delivering goods for a global market, in times of crisis the barriers between competing private companies and nation states are inevitably thrown up.

Under a socialist society, the incredible research of scientists in developing Covid vaccines in record time wouldn't be treated as a private asset to be exploited for profit but as public property to be used as part of a global plan to get vaccines produced and delivered to where they're needed most. That's why it's vital we replace the dysfunctional capitalist system with a socialist one that genuinely puts the health of the whole world's population above the greed of big business and the modern-day imperialist powers.

Covid-19 was preventable

The Covid-19 pandemic was preventable says an independent review panel set up by the World Health Organization (WHO). The report criticises the WHO itself, saying it should have declared a global emergency earlier.

"The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented," said co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. "It is due to a myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response."

The month following the WHO's declaration was "lost" as countries failed to take appropriate measures to halt the spread of the virus, the report says. And that when countries should have been preparing their healthcare systems for an influx of Covid patients, much of the world descended into a "winner takes all scramble for protective equipment and medicines."

This has been repeated in the vaccination process too. In contrast, a socialist internationalist approach would see big pharma and all healthcare systems taken into public ownership and run democratically by working-class people in the interests of people's health, as part of a socialist reorganisation of society.

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