Why Global Cooperation Is Fraying

Over a year ago, when the Covid-19 pandemic which started in Wuhan, China, spread around the world, there were accusations targeted at China by the US and China retaliated with its own allegations. When all the accusations and counter-accusations had died down, countries began to close down their economies to focus on containing the spread of the virus and testing and tracing their populations.

Many countries such as Italy, Iran, Brazil, UK and America experienced particularly devastating surges of the pandemic and UK and the US particularly put a lot of fiscal and monetary firepower behind fighting the effects of the pandemic on protecting jobs and livelihoods, along with spending on testing, tracking and treatment of Covid-19. European countries like France and Germany too enhanced their social protection budgets, along with lockdowns, while Sweden decided to go its own way with not locking down its economy, nor mandating masks and other Covid protocols. The jury is still out on the success of that experiment.

Unfortunately, new variants began to appear in the UK, Brazil and South Africa which soon spread to other countries, through whatever limited travel was being allowed with quarantining conditions. And although each country was fending for itself, there was a sense that the world was in this together and WHO updates and advisories were being adhered to, for the greater part. Except for the US which decided to leave the WHO under Trump, on the baseless allegation that it was being manipulated by China.

Simultaneously, there was an urgent need to research and produce a vaccine, which also brought countries together. Their scientific communities were exchanging progress being made on the vaccine front as well as treatments. There was also a sense of solidarity between people that was being shared in media, especially social media, of people boosting each other’s morale and spirit through the worst of the pandemic. Videos and images especially from Italy of people serenading each other and celebrating occasions from their balconies went around the world, spreading the sense that somehow, we were together in this terrible tragedy that was unfolding.

All that sadly seems in the past already. The pandemic is still in our midst, raging ever more, especially in India and other countries. But the cooperation and sense of solidarity seem to have vanished. There was so much hope being pinned on the vaccines, with news reports every other day of the progress being made in various stages of clinical trials. However, ever since vaccines began to roll out in the US and in Britain, a desperate race for ordering and hoarding them seems to have taken over. When science is our only way out of this pandemic, why is it bringing out our most selfish and even unethical instincts?

Not everyone has equal access to Covid vaccines; Image: Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Well, a few reasons strike me as the most critical, for the state of affairs when it comes to global distribution and access to vaccines. First, that for many decades science has served as the handmaiden of capitalism, and nowhere is this more evident than in America. The military-industrial complex that the US built over decades is one designed to protect America’s hegemony and its own interests. Nowhere is this more glaring than in state-funded medical and scientific research, the spoils of which go to large American corporations. It is a carefully devised system in which the powerful in America win – the state, research institutions and universities, big pharma – but the rest of the world loses. It has been proven over the years, how big pharma has raised the costs of healthcare even in the US, where ordinary and poor folk can barely afford it.

As an advertising and brand communications professional, I am a believer in scientific innovation, and in intellectual property, but I do think the time has come for a big overhaul in how innovation and intellectual property are regulated. Let us remember that Pfizer and Moderna achieved breakthroughs in a new technology that has led to a new kind of vaccine. Unfortunately, it requires new investments in refrigeration technology for storage and distribution – the kind developing countries can ill afford – making it unsuitable for most of the world, at least for this pandemic.

Let us also remember that this new RNA-messenger based technology opens up a whole new world of medical possibilities in the future, which is what makes their innovation breakthrough. It is a potential goldmine for Pfizer and Moderna. Will the benefits of those too go only to rich, industrialised countries such as US, UK and those in Europe? Right now, the costs, regulatory structure and legislation are heavily rigged in their favour.   

The next factor to consider is the way that countries’ politicians have responded to the crisis. Unable – and in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, unwilling – to control their populations’ behaviour during the pandemic, they too waited for science to deliver the miracle cure. Worse, several of these advanced countries pre-ordered vast amounts of the vaccine directly from pharma companies, far in excess of what was actually needed. With the result that these companies were not able to meet their other commitments, including to the global and multilateral initiative for distribution of the vaccine, Covax.

As economist, Jayati Ghosh, writes in this article for The India Forum, there are strong political and economic factors operating in the production and distribution of vaccines. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, the new WTO chief and board director of Gavi warns against pessimism about Covax in this article. She writes that Covax was created precisely to overcome vaccine nationalism and to ensure more equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the world. She also adds that we must avoid the mistakes of 2009, when a small number of rich countries bought up almost all the global supply of the H1N1 flu vaccine, leaving the rest of the world with none. If you look at the charts from Our World in Data in the slideshow below, you will see how vaccinations are progressing at different speeds across the world; the last chart is particularly telling of the inequitable distribution of vaccines as well, with Africa and South America lagging far, far behind.

Covax is a global alliance set up by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), GAVI and WHO for the equitable and global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to countries most in need. It is meant to deliver 2 billion doses of the vaccine through 2021 to around 190 participating countries and economies, regardless of their ability to pay. Clearly, it is a multilateral system designed to avoid the hassles of countries having to pay upfront and pre-order them. And in that sense, it protects the rights of poor and developing countries to access to the vaccine. It is funded through donations from member countries and multilateral institutions as well as NGOs such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

From news reports early this year, we know that Astrazeneca had trouble meeting its commitment to deliver doses of the vaccine to Europe and that caused a significant delay in the roll-out of the vaccination programme across the continent. Of course, it is true that Brussels had made it hard on itself in choosing to place a single, centralized order for all EU countries and that there were inordinate delays in the process. That said, it is obviously the competing pre-orders for the vaccine that was causing the pharma company to renege on its commitments. That, in turn, led to countries placing export bans and soon we had a sort of trade war in Covid-19 vaccines.

This OECD report on rollout of vaccination globally tells us of the extent of over-ordering by some countries through bilateral deals and how that is undermining the multilateral Covax programme. It also tells us of the shortfall in funding, to the tune of US $ 24-27 billion, that Covax requires in 2021 in order to be able to meet its commitments. Media has reported about India and South Africa requesting for a waiver of the IPR patents for these particular vaccines, so that poorer and developing countries have better access to them.

Unfortunately, even though India, China and Russia are the only countries exporting vaccines to the rest of the world, India has had to impose a ban in light of the recent devastating surge in the pandemic across the country and supply shortages. Note that America has still not exported any vaccine, and continues to pursue an America-first policy on vaccines, even after Trump, as reported recently in Times of India.

Advanced economies are slowly beginning to reopen; Image: Pixabay

With a considerable percentage of people fully vaccinated in the US and UK, as well as in countries such as Israel which had the fastest and most efficient vaccination roll-out, it is time that these countries released their excess orders of the vaccine, so poor and developing countries might benefit. In fact, international news channels such as BBC and CNN reported that at the last G7 summit called by UK’s prime minister, member countries said they would donate their surplus vaccines. And as Ms. Iweala says, it is better to send them to Covax for more equitable distribution.

The other, often overlooked factor, is the role of media. They are meant to report not just the state of the pandemic and numbers of cases and deaths, but the state of the distribution of vaccines and access to it, especially in developing countries. Consequently, also on the fraying global cooperation or the lack of it. I have not come across any intelligent and incisive reporting on this either in the international media or in India, save for the few articles that I am sharing in this blog post of mine. On television, it is even worse, especially in India. Day in and day out, all we hear are interviews with doctors, on what to do if you contract Covid. All scripted by the unprofessional PR agency, Perfect Relations and their BBDO Chennai cronies, no doubt.

On economic and other global cooperation, as well, as I had written in an Owl Wisdom Podcast of mine, the world – especially America’s traditional allies – were looking forward to resetting relations with the US especially after all the damage Trump inflicted on bilateral and multilateral relations. However, that has been slow to come by, with little sign of any progress in improvement of relations even with the UK and EU. Then, there is China, with whom America has to repair relations and resolve the trade and tariff war. The sooner the better.

For these are the world’s largest economies and also trade the most with each other and with the rest of the world. I think the economic recovery of the US – especially with the massive stimulus – will help global economic growth as well, just as China’s growth will. They owe it to each other and to the world to resolve their trade war soon.

I think the western world can start by immediately offloading their surplus vaccines to Covax and by making donations to the Covax programme in order to make up the funding shortfall. And I think a virtual G-20 summit around mid-year – before the October Summit in Rome – is in order. To take stock of the Covid pandemic, requirements from countries in meeting vaccine and other medical supplies, international aid, etc.

Summits in Rome and Glasgow can wait. There is greater need for North-South dialogue right now, even if it is via video-conference.

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