Capitalism is killing us — the COVID case

(Photo credit: Channi Anand/AP)

Greed is killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world, an avoidable catastrophe, fueling surges and viral variants, and ensuring that COVID will linger, mutate, and strike back, killing many more people inside the US. As COVID ravages India — three hundred and sixty thousand new cases were reported on a recent day — and stalks through Latin America and Africa, Americans are beginning to relax and enjoy the benefits of expanding vaccination coverage, too-often blinded to the unnecessary suffering facing humanity.

The big US and European pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Moderna, hold patents on the counter-COVID vaccines and the accompanying formulas they’ve developed, keeping the processes of production under wraps . This offensive action is encoded in a 1995 trade law called the “agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights,” or the TRIPS agreement. It requires all member states to recognize 20-year monopoly patents for pharmaceuticals, including vaccines. Even as bodies are piling up on the streets in poor countries, these companies clutch their secrets close to their vest.

This is a cardinal crime perpetrated by well-mannered barbarians with their MBAs in hand, and no one of conscience should be indifferent or matter-of-fact about it. “Private” enterprise is so deeply taken-for-granted that too many people are seduced into thinking of these massive deaths in India today as simply tragic, fatal bad luck. We know well, though, that the longer the virus rages in a population, the more variants it will evolve. The US solution? Ban travel from India! What a pea-brain and cruel idea. This is a policy of, “let them die, but keep us safe.” And certainly the virus will cross borders. Whatever the US does, the petri dish of the poor countries will yield deadly out-of-control strains that will come roaring back to the complacent Americans and Europeans.

Privilege is anesthetizing, blinding, seductive. Don’t let the privilege of access blind you to the crime scene we are inhabiting right now.

There is a simple solution to the catastrophe: abolish vaccine apartheid, and make the formula and manufacturing procedures public. Put them on the internet. Let dozens of other groups and countries produce the vaccine. But what about the massive efforts and investment the drug companies put into development of the vaccines? Actually, it was public investment, taxpayer investment of billions and billions of dollars that the government gave to the pharmaceutical companies that got the job done. Sounds like socialism! Doesn’t socialism dis-incentivize innovation and make people lazy? I’m sure those wonderful scientists in the labs were fighting as hard as they could to make a breakthrough — and they would have done so whether the money came from a capitalist boss or the government. In any case, this time it was coming from all of us.

This is the way most scientific research and development occurs under capitalism. The government funds the research through grants to universities and federal projects, and the discoveries are then handed to private companies — the guys sitting on their yachts counting their money — to make their profits. The nurses and doctors who have been battling the disease for over a year, getting sick and dying; the essential workers who have kept up production of food and infrastructure; the teachers who reinvented classrooms and supported families with little help — -they are not getting rich from the pandemic. They are fighting because they know it’s right. But the corporate overlords are going to let millions die around the world and urge all of us to look the other way because they insist that the guy on the yacht has a right to his blood-money.

Put in a larger context, this deadly horror is another round of the consequences of racial capitalism, the legacy of empire and the reality of neocolonialism. The advanced labs are in Europe and the US not because people there are smarter or better. They are where they are because of centuries of colonial exploitation, of impoverishing the conquered nations for the enrichment of the metropole. They do not lack advanced medical equipment because of moral failings, but because they’ve been held in an economy of extraction. These colonized countries should have the vaccine as a matter of reparations (as well as a basic moral and humane stance). But no, they will be obliged to light funeral pyres on top of funeral pyres so that pharmaceutical monopolies can get richer.

Will there come a day of reckoning? Will tribunals be held on top of the wreckage of the world in five years? Certainly the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma have been exposed (but not properly held accountable) for their peddling of opioids that have killed tens of thousands. Can we hold the Big Pharma board members and their compliant politicians accountable?

Let’s hope so.

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.

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