Vaccine Nationalism and Disaster Capitalism

Alex Charilaou 19 February 2021


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The European Union has been forced to U-turn on their plan to enact a clause of the Brexit deal that would put up border controls on vaccine exports through the Irish border. This embarrassing backtracking by the EU comes after the European Commission’s president spoke with Boris Johnson and the Irish Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, who was not consulted by the Commission before the announcement was made.


The reason for the initial announcement is thought to be suspicion on the EU’s part that AstraZeneca was prioritising distribution in the UK over the EU, where there has been significant problems in producing the vaccine on the agreed terms. The export ban would stop other vaccines, like the Pfizer vaccine, from entering the UK.


This comes days after Emmanuel Macron branded the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which has its primary distribution centres in the UK, ‘almost ineffective’ on over-65s. An independent group advising the German government made a similar statement. Both are at odds with trial research done in the early stages of the vaccine trials, as well as declarations by the European Commission and Public Health England.


Condemnation of the EU’s actions over the last few days has united a strange coalition of people, from the Tories to Labour, the DUP to Sinn Fein – even the Archbishop of Canterbury denounced the move, saying it would ‘undercut the EU’s basic ethics’. Can we really be surprised that an organisation that in recent memory has committed to pauperising its own member states and aggressively pushing back against refugees is playing political games around the vaccine? It is the Archbishop’s wording that is most interesting here. Granted that cutting through the Brexit bluster of recent years is difficult, it’s still important to have a clear view of what the European Union’s ‘basic ethics’ are: a monetary union, committed to neoliberal orthodoxy, i.e., putting the logic of the free market beyond reproach.


The whole reason for this EU vaccine row is that the vaccines that are being created – usually through very generous public subsidies – are being owned and licensed for a fee by private companies. The Oxford vaccine was originally proffered as being for the public good: there were proposals just months ago that the rights to the vaccine would be made internationally available at low costs. After the intervention of the oh-so-benevolent Gates Foundation, Oxford University was persuaded to partner with a large big pharma multinational who shared no such inclination towards releasing the vaccine for the common good.


In this debacle, the EU cannot just make the AstraZeneca vaccine, because it is not allowed to according to intellectual property rules laid out by the World Trade Organisation. Every country in the world must pay the massive corporations who own the rights to the vaccines to use them.


Should vaccines really be a commodity for sale in the midst of a global pandemic? Isn’t this absurd when the goal should be to get people immunised as quickly as possible? Doesn’t it say something quite damning about our society that something that could prevent the deaths of thousands is being bargained for private gain?


There’s a chance for the international community to rectify all this. In an informal meeting on the 4th of February, the WTO will discuss a proposal brought by India and South Africa, two countries struggling with efficient vaccine provision, to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines. There’s serious support for the proposal from much of the Global South – shockingly, just one of the world’s twenty-nine poorest countries has been able to start the vaccination process. Alas, most of the developed world (most vociferously the US, EU, UK and Japan) plans to stick together against the proposal.


If the Covid-19 crisis has clarified one thing, it’s that capitalism is incapable of addressing the problems of the 21st century. As the climate collapse intensifies and the global population surges beyond eight billion, the challenges thrown at us by the natural world will make pandemics like this one seem commonplace. One virus has caused the world to come to a standstill. It’s killed millions. Yet the West cannot even countenance doing what’s needed. Something so common sense as making vaccines for global pandemics freely available is beyond the pale to these people. It’s truly easier for our ruling elites to imagine millions more dead than a modicum of their wealth being taken away.

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First published in 1965, InQuire is the University of Kent student newspaper.

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