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The Pandemic and Vaccine Nationalism

“Vaccine nationalism” reproduces the geopolitical rivalries and tensions that have been building up since the 2008 capitalist crisis. Ultimately, it is a mirror of both capitalist competition and the irrationality of a system that transforms everything it touches — from the superfluous to the indispensable for life — into merchandise and profit.

Claudia Cinatti

December 19, 2020
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Two hands wearing blue latex gloves hold a vaccine syringe

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During November, some of the hundreds of vaccines in development against Covid-19 were approved, among them the one produced by the laboratory Pfizer (and its German partner BioNTech). While these vaccines received “emergency” approval from national certification agencies, so the first large-scale administration could be considered a sort of extended “phase 3,” they are certainly an important step on the way out of the pandemic.

The good news contrasts with two ominous realities. One, that despite the rush, the vaccines arrived late, and in the very short term, the pandemic continues to strike with renewed vitality. The other reality is that access to vaccines, like any other commodity, is reserved for the great powers for now, while the rest of us who live in dependent, semi-colonial, or very poor countries — that is, more than half of the world’s population — will have to continue to participate. Or at least this will be the case for the billions of us who do not belong to the privileged elites.

Let’s start with the first. The Northern Hemisphere, that is, roughly the major Western powers, is experiencing the second (or third) wave of coronavirus. Some, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, have started to vaccinate risk groups, and probably Germany will follow in the next few days, but it is a fact that even they will not reach a significant percentage of immunization in the next few months.

Most European countries had to re-establish lockdowns, restrictions and even curfews, like France, no less than after the massive protests against the Macron government’s authoritarian turn. In Germany, Angela Merkel appeared almost begging the population to increase caution, and something similar is happening in London.

The picture in the United States is even more discouraging. It remains high on the podium of countries with the greatest number of infections and has already surpassed 300,000 deaths. Congress appears to be getting close to approving a new $900 billion stimulus package, a portion of which will go to support unemployment insurance, containment measures such as food banks, and perhaps another round of “helicopter checks” that go straight into the pockets of beneficiaries. The Republicans are debating between exercising their opposition role and voting for policies with popular sympathy, which will eventually allow them to retain the majority in the Senate.

Biden’s expectation is that these measures will act as a “bridge” between the current social crisis situation and an eventual recovery. Of course, the impact of the “crisis crown” is selective, as it is in every class society. According to a study published in the Washington Post, 45 of the top 50 corporations increased their profits and fattened their shareholders’ pockets, but at the same time they collectively laid off 100,000 workers. The most striking example is that of Berkshire Hathaway, the group led by Warren Buffett, which earned $56 billion in the first six months of the pandemic, while one of its companies laid off 13,000 workers.

In Latin America, which remained at the epicenter of the pandemic for several months, the relief was short-lived, with outbreaks in most countries, without the first-wave cycle having yet been exhausted.

As for vaccines, the promised light at the end of the tunnel does not shine equally on everyone. According to Oxfam (which is part of the People’s Vaccine Alliance along with Amnesty International, Global Justice Now, and other institutions linked to “multilateral organizations”), some 70 poor and lower-middle-income countries will only be able to vaccinate one out of every 10 people next year, while the Western powers — the United States, Canada, and several European Union countries — have already purchased the doses to vaccinate their entire populations at least three times on average during 2021. Estimates are that 82% of Pfizer’s production and 78% of Moderna’s have already been sold to advanced countries, so the poorest countries would have to wait until 2024 to immunize their populations. While Oxford/AstraZeneca committed a higher percentage to “emerging” countries, these doses would only reach 18% of the world’s population.

In October, South Africa and India filed a motion at the World Trade Organization to release the patents on Covid-19 vaccines, now owned by pharmaceutical monopolies, so that they can be manufactured generically. That proposal was immediately rejected by the United States, the European Union, Great Britain, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, Australia and Brazil, among others.

The arguments are not only “humanitarian” but economic and refer to the state financing that the big pharmaceutical corporations have received to develop the vaccines against Covid-19: Moderna received $2.5 billion, AstraZeneca $2 billion, and Pfizer $455 million from the German government, in addition to $6 billion in advance purchase commitments from the United States and the European Union.

“Big pharma” defended its right to profit in an opinion piece in the New York Times, which reaffirms that patents are the incentive for investors to enjoy a period of exclusivity — which is allegedly (according to the corporations) why they have developed vaccines in record time — and that the monopoly would be relative because there are some 214 vaccine projects around the world, although they clarify that only 7 have been approved or are close.

The rift is not only between “rich and poor” but also confronts “the West” with China and Russia, who take advantage of the nationalism of the great powers to exercise some of their “soft power” through a kind of vaccine diplomacy and in the process do important business.

The Chinese government has promised to make its vaccines available as a “global public good” and has designated Pakistan and other Southeast Asian and African countries as priorities, although their capacity for large-scale production is in doubt. Unlike the United States and Russia, China agreed to join the COVAX fund, a sort of cooperative mechanism of the World Health Organization to ensure a vaccine floor for middle, low, and poor-income countries. Many analysts see in this positioning of Xi Jinping a continuity of projects with hegemonic ambition in the face of the United States’s defection from its leadership role, an equivalent in the health field to the Silk Road.

In the case of Russia, Putin hopes to sell hundreds of millions of doses of his Sputnik V vaccine in the “emerging countries.” Some are traditional allies of Russia in its zone of influence, such as the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Uzbekistan, but most see this as their only chance against the nationalism of the great Western powers. In addition to the economic benefit, Putin hopes to restore Russia’s geopolitical status and extend its influence even into Latin America, the U.S.’s backyard.

The WHO and other “multilateral agency” bureaucracies that serve as cover for ruthless imperialist domination warn that national response and competition could have the side effect of prolonging the pandemic that can only have a global solution.

“Vaccine nationalism” reproduces the rivalries and geopolitical tensions that have been accumulating since the capitalist crisis of 2008. Ultimately, it is a mirror of capitalist competition and the irrationality of a system that transforms everything it touches — from the superfluous to what is indispensable for life — into merchandise and profit.

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Claudia Cinatti

Claudia is an editor of our sister site La Izquierda Diario and a leading member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina.

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