Vaccine nationalism is set to prolong the pandemic and increase human misery
In recent times, two news stories in the media received much attention and irked many of us. Bill Gates -- one of the richest persons in the world who in recent times has appeared as a “great philanthropist” as well -- opined that it will not be wise to share the Covid-19 vaccine formula with the developing nations.
In an interview with the Sky News, Gates expressed disinclination with the idea that the know-how should be spread. His refusal came with an assumption: There will be too many difficulties in scaling up vaccine production in “untested” facilities.
The core aim of such agendas promoting the notion of “exclusiveness” is revealed by some local information relevant to Bangladesh. Some news reports have recently pointed out that according to newly revealed data by Beximco Pharmaceuticals -- the sole importer and distributor of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India to Bangladesh -- it has made a profit of around Tk77 per Covid-19 vaccine dose after deducting all operating costs.
As such, we can understand the economic imperatives behind the monopolization of the vaccine production and distribution. Arizton -- a Chicago based market research company -- estimated the Covid-19 vaccine market size to reach revenues of around $35 billion by 2021. Another estimate suggested that major Covid-19 vaccine players/competitors will earn $100bn in sales and $40bn in profits. Undoubtedly, the producers and distributors of the vaccines are expected to make a huge profit from the vaccine monopolization.
Market monopolization is essentially a feature of the economic system based on the ideology of capitalism. The system requires the investors to be in a position of authority where they could control the market in terms of having an absolute ability to organize the production (raw materials and labour) and hence, setting up exclusive access to the profit.
All the other reasons that are mentioned to support the idea of an “exclusive control” over the life-saving vaccine are nothing but mockery. We could always follow some protocol to distribute the knowledge, technology, and expertise. But the way it has been managed so far is nothing short of any other “competition” between the producers of consumer or luxury goods.
The ways the different vaccine producers are acting -- and the way information of their efficacy is being supported and publicized in the media -- are more akin to the ways Samsung or Apple market their latest gadgets. It bears little resemblance to how they would be expected to act when tackling a global pandemic.
The profit-seeking ventures of the business corporations have already made this world extremely unequal. The staggering wealth of the richest, if distributed among the poor, could eliminate extreme poverty out of existence. Yet, global inequality shows a worrying trend. Additionally, capitalistic ventures with the vaccines -- essential to tackle a pandemic like Covid-19, might have more disastrous impacts for humanity.
Profit-seeking ventures have, to some extent, led to “vaccine nationalism” -- where economically and politically powerful states have secured large quantities of vaccine doses, resulting in an inequitable distribution of vaccines globally.
Some countries have even hoarded vaccine doses that they might never need. As per recent estimates, the high-income states of the world have pre-purchased more than half of the vaccine doses expected to be manufactured in 2021. As such, half of the vaccines to be produced are reserved for 13% of the world population.
This reflects a trend and/or result of “monopolization” that Beximco Pharmaceuticals in Bangladesh or Bill Gates supports and seeks in one way or another. These decisions and acts are likely to be “paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries” as WHO Director-General stated recently.
As capitalism is responsible for keeping our world “unequal,” vaccine nationalism is set to prolong the pandemic and increase human misery. The WHO predicts the pandemic will continue to take more lives until we can vaccinate 70% of the world’s population. The way vaccine production is controlled, and produced doses are hoarded, it is unlikely that the pandemic will be under control even in 2023-2024 as expected by the WHO.
Vaccine nationalism will eventually cause the near-fragile health systems of low-income countries to crumble, as the health care professionals will be forced to work under the threats of Covid-19. If we can ensure fair vaccine sharing, it will eventually reduce much of the preventable deaths in many poorer states.
Besides, the prolonged pandemic will be economically damaging for the already-poor nations. The World Bank estimated, by the end of 2021, as many as 150 million people across the globe may be pushed into extreme poverty due the economic fallout induced by the pandemic.
Thereby, as always, the poor -- individuals, families, states -- are set to suffer for the benefit of the rich -- individuals, families, corporations, and states. They will be deprived of health care, possibly face death, and if they somehow survive, will become even poorer.
But we must realize, if the world’s population suffers, the nature of today’s globalized/connected economy will not let the rich keep a safe distance for eternity. The effects are destined to spill over.
In the long-run, a prolonged pandemic will destabilize the balance of production-consumption in the world. If the poor suffer, it will effectively hamper the production capacities of the world -- as mostly poor nations are the suppliers of labour for the world.
At the same time, they are the consumers of the mass-produced goods of global corporations. When the poor are doomed, the rich capitalists will not enjoy their privilege for long.
The tendencies centring Covid-19 vaccines reveal that our contemporary world is built on an ideology that is internally flawed and produces elements of its own destruction.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, The Netherlands.