by Ellen Isaacs
March 29, 2021
Nothing demonstrates, nothing verifies the chasms of race, power and wealth in this world better than the differential rates at which the rulers of wealthy countries are distributing Covid-19 vaccines. On March 10, protestors demonstrated at Pfizer and Moderna headquarters in New York City, Boston, London, South Africa and other places to demand equitable availability of vaccines around the globe. As of that date, 130 countries had not received a single dose of vaccine, and many are not on track to be fully vaccinated before 2024. In order to attain herd immunity for the approximately 7.8 billion people in the world, 11 billion doses are needed to give 70% of adults two shots. According to Duke’s Global Health Innovation Center, high income countries, which represent one-fifth of the world’s population, possess six billion doses, but poor countries representing four-fifths of the population have only 2.6 billion. This figure includes the 1.1 billion doses under COVAX, the international plan to vaccinate in poor nations.
Within wealthy countries, vaccine apartheid is also apparent. The US has vaccinated whites at 2.5 times the rate for Latins and 2 times that of blacks despite the fact that these communities have suffered much higher rates of death and disease than white communities. (https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/latest-data-on-covid-19-vaccinations-race-ethnicity/), Although part of the problem is the suspicion with which minority communities view the medical establishment based on years of being victimized by medical experimentation and poor health care, this is not the whole explanation. Vaccine appointment systems are fragmented by county or state, and are difficult to navigate – virtually inaccessible to anyone not proficient in English or without computer access, expertise or hours to spare navigating the system. Transportation to inoculation sites may also be unavailable. Very little effort has been made to educate and reassure members of skeptical communities or to set up vaccination centers in accessible and trusted locations like churches, housing projects or union halls. Gradually these efforts are increasing as the overall society realizes that no one is safe until the vast majority are protected, including essential workers who are disproportionately black and Latin.
Large numbers of the undocumented are either excluded from eligibility or fear to be in contact with a system that may deport them. Immigrants who are in detention receive almost no protection or care for the disease, without basic protections like masks, social distancing or sanitation and hardly any testing (https://multiracialunity.org/?s=pipeline). In US prisons, where 2.3 million disproportionately minority people are confined, there is same lack of caretaking. The rate of infection is four times the national rate and the mortality rate is double, or up to seven times as high in some states. Since December, the CDC has prioritized prison inmates for vaccination, but only half of the 50 states are following this recommendation (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/feb/09/us-jails-prisons-covid-vaccines).
Perhaps no country better exemplifies internal apartheid than Israel, whose 55% adult vaccination rate is the highest in the world. However, Israel illegally militarily occupies the West Bank and Gaza, home to 4.5 million Palestinians, There, over 263,000 have been infected with Covid and over 2800 have died. Most ICUs in the West Bank are at over 100% capacity; Gaza continues to suffer daily power cuts and shortages of oxygen and ventilators. Only 2% of occupied Palestinians have been vaccinated and the more infectious UK variant is becoming very prevalent. Israel offered vaccine to the 133,000 West Bank residents who work in Israel or settlements, in order to protect itself, but only 5000 doses have been sent to the occupied territories. Most of the few hundred thousand doses of vaccine being delivered are from Russia, COVAX and other sources outside Israel, despite the legal obligation of an occupying power to see to the health needs of the occupied (https://www.bbc.com/news/55800921, Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council).
Profits Over People
Unicef estimates that the world has the capacity to produce up to 20 billion doses of vaccine, and half of this capacity is in developing countries. Thirteen million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been produced by the beginning of March, according to Affinity Data, which the company projects will rise to 9.5 billion by the end of 2021. Realistically, these numbers will more likely be reached by the end of 2022 because of many supply chain problems, as more than 200 individual components are needed, such as glass vials, filters, resin, and tubing, which are often manufactured in different countries. (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00727-3)
The devotion of the large pharma companies in the US and Europe to maximizing their profits is the major obstacle to producing enough vaccine for the world. New vaccines are protected by patent laws that prevent them from being manufactured by companies that did not develop them. (The Conversation, 2/18/21) Although over 100 countries, the UN and many other groups are asking to suspend these intellectual property barriers, five wealthy countries, including the U.S. and Britain, have refused to do so as of March 25. They are determined to guarantee the profits of their pharmaceutical companies, despite the fact that vaccine makers received about $20 billion dollars in public support. This is virtually the same struggle that took place over HIV medication in the 1990s, when millions died in Africa before widespread drug manufacturing was allowed. But Covid, although less lethal, is much more contagious than HIV.
Pfizer is also demanding unprecedented liability protection from foreign countries in order to sell them vaccine, demanding that it not be held responsible for rare adverse effects or for its own acts of negligence, fraud or malice. The company is requiring that South American countries put up huge assets, such as federal bank reserves, embassy buildings and military bases, as insurance against the cost of any future legal cases. Although nine countries have been forced to agree to this sort of deal, five – Uruguay, Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Cuba – have yet to receive a single dose of a foreign vaccine (www.nakedcapitalism.com/2021/03/pfizers-scandalous-sales-practices-in-latin-america-are-the-perfect-boon-for-china-and-russia.html).
Overall, we are witnessing the ravages of a viral pandemic of which more are predictable as capitalist practices like mass production of food animals, deforestation brought on by mining, and uncontrolled expansion of poor populations around cities bring humans into greater contact with millions of viruses previously isolated in wild animals. (Big Farms Make Big Flu by Rob Wallace). More pandemics will occur unless sound public health practices come to outstrip the need to make bigger and faster profits – a goal not possible under capitalism. Even though modern science and industry can rapidly develop and produce successful vaccines, racism and wealth differentials guarantee that great disparities will persist in their distribution. Even with global movements in the 1990s to demand HIV treatment for everyone and to expand the treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis, the lack of system change has allowed inequalities in mortality and infections to persist today. Only when we rid ourselves of capitalism and build a worker-run society, a communist society, can we prioritize public health and cooperate worldwide to produce and distribute medical care and treatments. Only under such a society can we rid ourselves of the racism and nationalism that allows us to tolerate the current chasms of care.