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COVID and Capitalism: Vaccines and debt

By: 
Sid Lacombe

December 2, 2020

As the scramble for vaccines heats up, many countries in the global south are being left behind. A recent study by Oxfam found that, by September of this year, rich countries (representing 13 percent of the population) had had already bought up 51 percent of the expected available doses of the vaccines.

The recent announcement that the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine will be sold more cheaply than the Pfizer & Moderna vaccine is good news but we are still far from an equitable distribution of the drugs.

Human Right Watch has published a letter to the world bank saying that, “Key barriers that need to be addressed to ensure lower-income governments are able to procure vaccines in a timely manner and at affordable rates, are pricing, vaccine scarcity, and complex intellectual property barriers.” At present the responses have been wholly inadequate. There is still a cost for vaccines in poorer countries that may be too much to pay.

No place is harder hit than Africa when it comes to drug costs. Over the past few decades, pharmaceutical giants have pushed for more security for their patents on drugs. They have used the international trade agreements to make sure that no country can produce generic versions of drugs on their own. This has resulted in thousands of deaths as basic drugs are not made available for local populations.

All of this is exacerbated by the structural adjustment programs set out by the IMF which call for cuts and privatization of health and public services as a means of restructuring debt.

The debt that many countries in the global south have is a construct that doesn’t relate to the reality on the ground. According to Global Justice Now, rich countries take more from Africa in the form of resource extraction profits and debt repayments than they send to the continent each year. In a report from 2017, they estimated at the time that more than $40 billion was being extracted in profit over and above aid payments and investments.

And the results have been devastating. According to Oxfam, 64 countries in the global south paid more in debt repayments than on health care in 2019. There will be little they can do to avoid further debts as the COVID crisis hits. Despite some attempts to provide a vaccine more cheaply, such as through the COVAX Facility, designed to provide cheaper drugs, many countries in Africa still have to pay for the vaccine.

As we have seen throughout the COVID crisis, we are not all in this together. Billionaires are making more money than ever - the top 44 richest people in Canada have pocketed $53 billion since the crisis started. Those who will pay the price are the poor and racialized, not just in the advanced capitalist countries but also in those countries under the thumb of imperialists.

We need to call for vaccines to be produced for people’s needs and not for profits and patents should be made available to all who wish to produce them. We also need to support the call to cancel debts for poorer countries so people have the chance to get the healthcare they need.

Learn more about the campaign for a People's vaccine at: https://www.oxfam.org/en/tags/peoples-vaccine

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