U.S. and Other World Powers Hoard COVID Vaccines, Condemning Millions in Asia, Africa and Latin America to Unnecessary Suffering and Death

From a reader

| revcom.us


Editors’ Note: Last week revcom.us posted a letter from a member of the Revolution Tour (Parasitism, Pandemic, and the Needless Horrors of a Lopsided World) that shed light on how and why this system’s response to the coronavirus epidemic has been built on exploiting and deepening global inequalities and oppressive relations—and has failed miserably to prevent or minimize massive suffering and death. What follows below is a letter from another reader building on that.

There’s actually no way that anyone in India or anyone anywhere outside these rich countries is going to get their hands on one of these vaccines for love or for money. They just don’t exist outside of very few number of rich countries.

Achal Prabhala, Indian public health advocate

Under the radar, with little public attention, something truly shocking—a major crime against humanity that may lead to extended unnecessary suffering for millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America—is being carried forward. The global system dominating the world is now dictating that only one-fifth of people in the oppressed nations are worth protecting from the COVID plague.

This is no exaggeration.

Last spring, as the pandemic spread sickness, death and economic devastation around the world, the U.S., Britain, Europe and other imperialist powers began funding dozens of pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines. Instead of building on the desire of thousands of scientists to pool their efforts and share their knowledge to solve this problem threatening the whole planet, the big powers were in competition with each other to gain economic, political and strategic advantage, to make sure that their population got vaccinated first (and therefore got its economy back before others could1) and then to use their control over these precious supplies to build and wield influence over other countries.

And every corporation—while claiming it would distribute the vaccine to everyone on the planet (eventually!)—worked out secret purchasing arrangements with wealthy individual countries that could pay the highest price for the vaccine as it was produced. The imperialist countries also blocked efforts to suspend “intellectual property rights”—patents and so forth—that prevent companies in Third World countries from using the new vaccine technologies to more cheaply produce and distribute vaccines in their countries.2

And what is the result? On December 28, the New York Times reported that “A few months from now, a factory in South Africa is expected to begin churning out a million doses of Covid-19 vaccine each day in the African country hardest-hit by the pandemic. But those vials will probably be shipped to a distribution center in Europe and then rushed to Western countries that have pre-ordered them by the hundreds of millions. None have been set aside for South Africa ... [which] does not expect to see the first trickle of doses until around the middle of next year.”

There is a similar situation in India, a deeply impoverished country of 1.3 billion people who have already suffered incredibly from the pandemic.3 The pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca (reportedly under pressure from its research partners at Oxford University) has promised to produce enough doses to vaccinate only a bit over one-third of the population... over the coming year.

Defeating the pandemic requires “herd immunity,” which would be achieved when enough of the population is immunized that the virus cannot spread and it starts to die out. Otherwise, not only will the virus keep circulating among the unvaccinated, but over time new strains of the virus will develop that existing vaccines do not protect against. COVID may then become “endemic,” meaning that this deadly disease becomes a constant part of society, sickening and killing millions more, ravaging the economy and weakening the society as a whole.

Most public health experts think herd immunity for COVID requires roughly 70 percent of the entire population to be immunized. And yet, according to the New York Times, (December 26), the international grouping that is working to provide aid to low- and middle-income countries “aims for 20 percent coverage at most by the end of 2021”—in other words, just one-fifth of the population. Some groups estimate that in reality, the 70 poorest countries of the world will only be able to vaccinate one-tenth of their people.

By contrast, the U.S. and other powers have been hoarding vaccine for themselves, and now have confirmed orders that will funnel the bulk of vaccine into their hands as it is produced. According to the Economist (November 12), Canada will have enough to vaccinate its entire population almost five times over; Britain almost three times; the U.S. and the European Union countries, about 1.5 times.

As the head of the African Centers for Disease Control4 put it: “The U.S. is not going to target 20 percent of its population. Europe is not going to target 20 percent of its population. Why do you think in Africa we should?”

It’s an important question. And yet, there is no evil genius or super-villain at work here... only the normal workings of a worldwide system—the system of capitalist-imperialism. Under this system, how even the most basic needs of human life are produced and distributed is determined by the drive for profit of different capitalist banks and corporations ruthlessly competing against each other, and by the competitive drive for global economic and strategic advantage of the “great powers.”


1. According to the New York Times, Israel’s Minister of Health made clear that even if Israel ended up overpaying for the vaccine, the cost would still be worth it in order to reopen the Israeli economy even one week earlier than its competitors. (Israel is not itself an imperialist power. But it is a highly militarized enforcer for U.S. imperialism, and as such its leaders largely reflect the basic outlook of the imperialist powers.) [back]

2. For instance, there are 20 vaccine manufacturers in India, and eight on the African continent. [back]

3. As of January 1, India has reported over 10 million COVID-19 cases and 150,000 deaths, both of which are likely gross undercounts. Go here for a report on the first COVID wave in India. [back]

4. The ACDC’s 2016 budget was $6.9 million. The U.S. CDC’s 2019 budget was $7.3 billion. [back]

Volunteers wait for vaccine trial, South AfricaSouth Africa: Volunteers wait to be checked at a vaccine trial facility for AstraZeneca which will produce millions of doses of vaccine a day. But the vaccine will probably be shipped to Europe and Western countries that have pre-ordered hundreds of millions of them. None have been set aside for South Africa which may see the first trickle of doses in late 2021. (Photo: AP)

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