The twisted, tragic reality of vaccine apartheid

True to form, the Western pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing vaccines are already telling shareholders that they will raise prices on them in the near future.

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As much of the globe was going into lockdown in March of last year, some on the progressive left believed that the emergency might create the conditions for the rise of a new internationalism. Surely the countries of the world, especially the richer and more powerful ones, would set aside their differences and make sensible choices in terms of sharing knowledge and resources to confront the novel coronavirus.

Instead, from PPE shortages early on to vaccines today, a scramble ensued that left much of the global south behind.

In terms of the inoculations that could neutralize much of the threat, as the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Gheybreysus, explained in April, “There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines. On average in high-income countries, almost 1-in-4 people have received a vaccine. In low-income countries, it’s 1-in- 500. Let me repeat that: 1-in-4 versus 1-in-500.” 

The United States, Canada and some European countries worked with large pharmaceutical companies developing revolutionary mRNA and adenovirus vaccines in a remarkably short period of time, mostly on the basis of earlier publicly funded research. Russia and China also produced a number of vaccines based on the same science, with the former first out of the gate with its Sputnik V vaccine.

True to form, the Western pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing vaccines are already telling shareholders that they will raise prices on them in the near future.

As reported by The Intercept, Frank D’Amelio, Pfizer’s CFO, told a conference, “As this turns from a pandemic to endemic, we think there’s an opportunity here for us.”

As we saw with the AIDS crisis until recently, a disease can rage unchecked in poorer countries without the means to produce or buy life saving medicines as long as wealthier ones feel their citizens are protected.

Further, instead of seeing the scientific breakthroughs represented by the vaccines as an opportunity to ease tensions and collaborate with rivals to meet the greatest logistical challenge of our time, the United States and its allies have mostly taken a go it alone approach. While obviously, governments have an obligation to put their citizens first, even in purely political terms, the approach being taken is a mistake, as the People’s Republic and, to a lesser extent, the Russian Federation, have been given the opportunity to work together to fill the gap and win propaganda victories in the process.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, showed the strategy at work after a meeting with his Russian counterpart in late March, telling reporters, “Unlike some major countries that are hoarding the vaccines for their own interests, we want to see more people immunized. Our hope is for the world to beat the pandemic as soon as possible. For China and Russia, our choice is not to benefit only ourselves, but rather to help the whole world.” 

It can be argued that Covax, the organization formed by the World Health Organization and two partners to ensure that vaccines get to where they are needed most at reasonable cost, has failed in its mission. While the elderly people most at risk in poor countries are still not receiving shots, younger people least at risk of serious illness in countries like the U..K, Canada and the United States are already receiving their second doses. 

Although this disparity impacting whole continents is bad enough, the emergence of what might be called vaccine apartheid targeting nations Western countries led by the U.S. consider enemies, mainly but not limited to Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, is an ongoing tragedy that’s too little reported on.

The Iranian response to the crisis, which began earlier there than in North America, is widely seen as disastrous but the toll was clearly made worse by sanctions, which the Trump Administration made even more punishing rather than easing as the pandemic hit. 

While sanctions regimes are not supposed to deny the countries targeted life saving medicines, as we have seen in the past, the multinationals that produce them and the financial institutions that are supposed to process these transactions are risk averse and usually avoid making deals with these governments.

In contrast to the Islamic Republic, although there has been a worrying rise in cases throughout Latin America and the Caribbean over the last few weeks, the numbers show that both Cuba and Venezuela have done much better than their neighbors and even much of the developed world in response to the crisis.

The example offered by Venezuela is instructive.

While the country’s government is often criticized as incompetent at best and evil at worst, the numbers show that it has been effective in managing the health emergency. As of June 22nd, the country had 2989 deaths attributed to Covid 19, neighboring Colombia had 101,302.

However, the country’s people remain at great risk as the country’s government, despite having paid for them, is having trouble sourcing vaccines.

As Maria Paez Victor explained on Counterpunch last month, “It had been expected that in July and August COVAX would send vaccines. Venezuela has already paid most of the $64 million needed for 11 million doses which would cover a further 20% of the country’s population. However, the $10 million that was the last amount owing is now suspended by the Swiss bank UBS on orders of the USA.”

If there is one country that has been both effective in its pandemic response and shown solidarity with other nations, it’s Cuba, which despite all the obstacles it faces from the embargo reimposed on the island by the former U.S. president’s administration, has produced five vaccines of its own, one of which, Mambisa, is a nasal spray and thus doesn’t require the strict refrigeration of most others on the market, technology which is not always available in poorer countries. 

With shortages of just about everything as a result of the American embargo, the island of 11 million people nonetheless has plans to vaccinate all its people by the end of the summer and provide shots to other countries including Iran, Mexico and Venezuela.

As explained in a piece in the medical journal The Lancet, Cuba has a proud history of providing help to other countries during epidemics, “Cuba’s Henry Reeve Brigade was established in 2005. It has dispatched cadres of health-care professionals all over the world to combat disasters and epidemics. Cuban doctors were on the scene in Haiti during the cholera outbreak that followed the 2010 earthquake; they arrived in West Africa during the 2013–16 Ebola crisis. And when COVID-19 spread to Europe, two Henry Reeve teams landed in Italy. By the end of April 2020, more than 1000 Cuban health-care workers were helping foreign countries respond to COVID-19.” 

Just as no government should be spared criticism when they fail their citizens or violate their basic human rights, we should also be willing to learn from their successes and Cuba’s medical diplomacy is clearly in this category.

That most rich countries failed to live up to the widely circulated idea that during a pandemic ‘We’re all in it together’, instead of ignoring the suffering of the world’s poorest people, including marginalized communities within their own borders, should be viewed as an indictment of a capitalist system that puts the profits and safety of the few over the lives of the many.

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