It is quite fashionable for South Africans to blame the government for all the country’s woes, and, to be fair, the ruling party does excel at shooting itself in the foot. But the shortage of Covid-19 vaccines is one calamity that cannot be laid entirely at the Union Buildings’ door.
The reason we don’t have enough vaccines is not due to corruption or mismanagement — or the regulatory authority, Sahpra. It is because powerful business and political leaders in the global North are hesitant to forego financial and political interests in producing and distributing the life-saving serums.
Instead of recognising the necessity for global solidarity to rein in a global pandemic, geopolitics and economics have dictated that the countries with the deepest pockets have lined up their citizens to be vaccinated first.
Eight months after South Africa and India proposed a TRIPS waiver to enable global production of vaccines to vaccinate the global population, the powerful leaders are proving unwilling to budge.
We’ve all known since the start of the pandemic that certain categories of people are more vulnerable than others to Covid’s destruction. In particular, we’ve known that it makes sense to prioritise protecting the wellbeing of the elderly, people with comorbidities, health workers and so-called frontline workers.
But the group of people who have actually been prioritised are citizens of countries that can afford to pay most.
That’s why you have 16-year-olds fully vaccinated in some Northern countries while many nurses and 86-year-olds in Southern nations remain exposed and must just wait their turn. It’s why some countries bought up more shots than they needed, just in case, because they could afford to.
If it was decided to vaccinate people with blue eyes first — or black skin, or heterosexuals, or Christians, or those living in brick houses — there would be an outcry over the blatant discrimination.
So what makes it tolerable to discriminate on the basis of politics and global wealth?
At the outset of the pandemic, many thought leaders spoke of the opportunities crises presented.
In this instance, the parallel crises of public health and economic disasters presented opportunities for an unequal global village hurtling towards environmental catastrophe to reset… for a new era of justice and sustainability.
The fact that we don’t have sufficient doses of the vaccine to protect our people is evidence that power players in the world have chosen not to grasp the opportunities for change, but have instead doubled down on restoring the pre-pandemic economic status quo.
Rather than benefit from the waiving of vaccine patents and enabling the affordable production of generic versions, the global South must once again rely on cast-offs and charity.
Over the past few weeks, the United States has made a number of announcements about vaccine donations to poorer countries. The US would donate a total of 500 million doses to those most needing them, President Joe Biden said. This week it reportedly shipped the first two million doses offshore, to Peru.
Depending on where you stand, these no-strings-attached donations could be regarded as a generous blessing. Or you might cite Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous rejection of apartheid “reforms” in 1985: “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.”
What’s the point of all the global alliances and summits to champion common goals, such as Davos and the COPs and G7s if, when push actually comes to shove, old money prevails?
Here we’re dealing with a pandemic that knows no borders, the quintessential global existential threat, but global leaders can’t transcend old power relationships and interests.
South Africa’s government has been severely criticised for the implementation of its haphazard vaccination plan. Some criticism is legitimate. We’ve all read about Digital Vibes and the other missteps.
But the whole truth is more nuanced. We suffered setbacks that couldn’t be foreseen, including the Astra-Zeneca vaccine being found to be mostly ineffective against the Beta variant of the virus. Then the batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines was declared unusable due to contamination that took place during their manufacture in the US.
The world’s nations established Covax to ensure that low- and middle-income countries were not excluded from vaccine supply but Covax, too, has been hampered by supply constraints and has therefore failed to deliver.
But the real problem goes back to the protection of vaccine patents, or recipes.
According to the New York Times Vaccine Tracker, there are 94 vaccines in clinical trials and at least 77 vaccines in pre-clinical trials across the globe. About 18 vaccines have been authorised or approved for use.
The scale of the investment in this research and development is unprecedented. Much of the investment was through direct public funding to private companies by wealthy countries, and through advanced purchase agreements in terms of which countries invested in the development of vaccines by buying them prior to their production.
These are the investments that world leaders are protecting — some argue, rightly so. If intellectual property that costs a fortune to develop isn’t protected, fewer people will invest in developing it, their argument goes.
But whose assets are being protected, given that vaccines were largely developed with public funds, and is it right for pharmaceutical companies to reap the rewards of this public investment? Should their rights trump the rights of citizens of less wealthy nations?
In October 2020, South Africa and India proposed a limited patent waiver for access to the tools needed to fight this virus. One of those tools is the vaccine.
The so-called TRIPS waiver has only recently progressed to text negotiation but there are still some countries that have not yet indicated their support for it. Ironically, they include Australia which is struggling with its own supply having lost a massive investment in the development of its own vaccine.
There are three reasons that opposition to, or delaying the TRIPS waiver, is ethically unacceptable.
The first is that the vaccines have largely been developed with public financial investment and the suggestion that the waiver will undermine the pharmaceutical industry’s investment in research and development is unsustainable.
Second, delaying the supply of vaccines, by withholding the opportunity to manufacture generics, delays global economic recovery and prospects of the world returning to some sort of “normal”.
Third, people are dying. Withholding the possibility of increased access to the vaccine is morally bankrupt.
The so-called village is crying out for a vaccination against global inequality. DM