175 former heads of state, Nobel Prize winners and other illustrious eminences added their support to the call for the U.S. government to mandate a relaxing of intellectual property laws to allow countries in the Global South to mass-produce vaccines without fear of being sued.
One of the more revealing details in this discussion is that the mechanism for countries to use a health emergency to momentarily suspend intellectual property rights already exists in the form of the World Trade Organization’s Trips agreement, which dates from the HIV crisis. However, no countries have yet taken advantage of this option to deal with COVID. No-one less than the Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz pointed out that the main reason for this trend is that the United States has tended to threaten anyone hazarding to use the Trips mechanism.
It strikes me that the U.S. (and its rich democratic allies in Europe and elsewhere) seem locked into a kind of addiction to exclusivity, where decades of corporations-first neoliberalism is colliding with the fact that Western societies (like many others) are increasingly defined by yawning domestic inequality.
What results is a kind of Tesla logic: make something that’s desperately needed all over the world to ward off a creeping shared existential crisis (in Tesla’s case the crisis is climate change and the product is electric vehicles.) But instead of mass producing and selling it to billions of people for maximum effect and profit, it’s instead marketed as a luxury good to a little group of the richest folks at the tippy-top of the wealth pyramid. This is as true within these rich countries as it is worldwide – a working mom in Iowa has as little chance to buy an affordable Tesla minivan as her counterpart in New Delhi.
Of course vaccines are being rolled out more widely across the rich world now, but the global distribution follows the same logic as the luxury-fication of electric vehicles. This kind of exclusivity is frequently justified as the result of corporations leading research. Boris Johnson recently struck a very Gordon Gekko tone in attributing the success of the vaccine research to “capitalism, greed.” However, Johnson was soon exposed as disingenuous: 97% of the AstraZeneca vaccine research had actually been publicly funded.
Many have pointed out that it is ultimately completely self-defeating to limit global access to vaccines. The longer the vaccination takes, the higher the chance for viral mutations and with it the danger that rich Western elites will still have to line up for booster shots in 2027.
All of this puts a very interesting spin on the recent comments by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison warning of a “great polarization” between “authoritarian regimes and autocracies, and the liberal democracies that we love.” Western commentators habitually attribute the massive technological advances achieved by these countries as the result of free market capitalism with liberal democracy. However, the democracy part of the equation sits uneasily next to the massive wealth gaps created by the capitalism part. The wider result is that the domestic inequalities within these rich democracies, which COVID exposed mercilessly last year, are being reproduced on a global scale.
I’m definitely worried about growing authoritarianism around the world, but one also has to point out that the kind of class gaps and institutionalized exclusivity celebrated by Johnson and co. is sending its own message to the rest of the world, one that can’t be dismissed by simple “democracy = good” messaging.
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