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Vaccine apartheid: The Global South fights back

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Fed up with the games of rich countries, Global South countries, backed by the WHO, are starting to take matters into their own hands.

By Nick Dearden

Could the rich world’s obscene selfishness on vaccine equality ultimately help bring about a fairer economy? If we fight for it.

When diplomats start speaking like campaigners, you know geopolitics is starting to shift. This week United Nations chief Antonio Guterres lectured world leaders on the disgraceful state of vaccine inequality, calling it “a moral indictment of the state of our world. It is an obscenity.” A fortnight earlier, World Health Organization head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the press: “I will not stay silent when the companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers.”

At last week’s UN general assembly, leaders from across the Global South united in condemning Western governments and the pharmaceutical corporations sitting on vaccine patents which they are refusing to share. Pedro Castillo, newly elected president of Peru, demanded an international agreement to ensure equal, universal access to the coronavirus vaccine, saying the pandemic has “demonstrated the inability of the international system to cooperate under the principles of efficiency and solidarity”.

Peru, after all, has suffered the highest death rate of any country in the world, with new figures suggesting 200,000 deaths for a country with 32 million people. To date, it has vaccinated less than 30 percent of its population.

What has particularly angered Global South leaders, from the political left and right alike, is that while Western countries like the United States and United Kingdom are now offering third shots to their own citizens, many countries have been unable to offer the majority of their population even a first shot. Six billion doses have been administered globally, but three-quarters have gone to just 10 countries. Britain has fully vaccinated 67 percent of its people, while the figure for the whole African continent is three percent, and low-income countries have only been able to inoculate a pitiful 0.5 percent of their people.

The rich world’s stance is not simply “me first”, but “me first, second, third and fourth”.

Pushed by the global outrage this has understandably caused, US President Joe Biden promised an additional 500 million vaccine donations this week, taking the US total to 1.1 billion. This dwarfs the trickle coming from the rest of the rich world, but it is still far too little, which is why there is an increasing feeling among many Southern leaders that donations are not sufficient. The problem lies in a global economy that has allowed a handful of transnational corporations to patent – and thereby monopolise – these vaccines.

To get an idea of why these monopolies are causing such anger, you only need to take a look at new figures from the pharmaceutical industry. By the end of the year, we now expect wealthy countries to have a surplus of 1.2 billion vaccine doses, with a whopping 12 billion doses having been produced in total. But the very day after this huge number was announced, the international distribution mechanism, Covax, on which most countries depend for their vaccines, told us that it will miss its target for vaccinations by more than 500 million doses this year.

In other words, despite a surplus of vaccines in the rich world, the Global South has far fewer than the tiny amounts it was led to expect. While supply gets better, inequality gets worse. It is reminiscent of the Indian famines the British Empire presided over in the 19th century, where the problem was not an absolute lack of food, but rather a market system which prioritised the money of the rich over the needs of the poor.

Today, wealthy governments have handed control of this pandemic to the market, in the form of gigantic transnational corporations, who have taken vast sums of public money and refused to share the resulting know-how.

This week, Amnesty International accused these corporations of fuelling a human rights crisis. They pointed out that Pfizer and BioNTech, makers of a leading cutting-edge vaccine, have delivered nine times more vaccines to Sweden than to all low-income countries combined. Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna will earn over $133bn in revenues by the end of 2022 on these vaccines. Yet none of them – nor indeed any other Western producer – will openly share their know-how so others can produce the vaccines we need. They thrive on the secrecy which boosts their profits.

So waiving the patents that create these monopolies and sharing the know-how behind the vaccines would allow all countries with the capacity to do so to produce their own medicines. It has become a key demand of many Global South governments and the flourishing “People’s Vaccine” solidarity movement. Sadly, while negotiations around this issue have been ongoing in the WTO for nearly a year, the proposal is still being blocked by European countries, most notably Britain and Germany.

This explains the anger seen this week. For many, the international system has been proven morally bankrupt, and clearly, most countries cannot rely on the global trade system to provide the medicines they desperately need. They need control over their medicines. That is why the fight at the WTO to suspend patents is so vitally important.

Fed up with the games of countries like Britain and Germany, Global South countries, backed by the WHO, are starting to take matters into their own hands. One of the most exciting developments is the “mRNA hub” which aims to research the cutting-edge technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and produce medicines directly in southern Africa. Shamefully, Moderna, whose CEO has become a billionaire on the back of his company’s publicly funded vaccine, is refusing to share the recipe. Undeterred, the hub is going to try to mimic the Moderna vaccine anyway – and produce it without permission.

Indonesia has now asked to be considered as a location for a similar Asian hub. Given mRNA’s revolutionary potential to inoculate not simply against COVID-19, but to produce vaccines or treatments for HIV, cancers, malaria and more, this is a huge development. It means this revolutionary technology could indeed be prised out of the hands of the profit-obsessed transnationals, to create a very different medical research system.

It isn’t just the world’s ability to deal with medical emergencies that is under the spotlight. Many countries are now rightly distrustful that the rules of the global economy will not allow them to deal fairly with the serious questions we face, from climate change to the threat to our human rights posed by the ever-powerful Big Tech lobby. And perhaps the fledgling experiment with building a Global South pharmaceutical system shows the way we need to go in other areas too.

If the international system is failing most of humanity, it needs to be rebuilt, not through endless negotiations which the wealthy can block, but by creating a new reality here and now. (AL Jazeera)



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Features

Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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JAYASRI twins…in action in Europe

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The world over, the music scene has been pretty quiet, and we all know why. This pandemic has created untold hardships for, practically, everyone, and, the disturbing news is that, this kind of scene has been predicted for a good part of 2022, as well,

 

The band JAYASRI, however, based in Europe, and fronted by the brothers Rohitha and Rohan, say they are fortunate to find work coming their way.

Over the past few months, they have been performing at some of the festivals, held in Europe, during the summer season.

Says Rohitha: “As usual, we did one of the biggest African festivals in Europe, AfrikaTage, and some other summer events, from July up to now. Some were not that big, as they used to be, due to the pandemic, health precautions, etc.”

For the month of October, JAYASRI did some concerts in Italy, with shows in the city of Verona, Napoli, Rome, Padova and Milano.

The twins with the
late Sunil Perera

On November, 12th, the JAYASRI twins, Rohitha and Rohan, will be at EXPO Dubai 2020 and will be performing live in Dubai.

Rohitha also indicated that they have released their new single ‘SARANGANA,’ describing it as a Roots Reggae song, in audio form, to all download platforms, and as a music video to their YouTube channel – www.youtube.com/user/jayasri

According to Rohitha, this song will be featured in an action drama.

The lyrics for ‘SARANGANA,’ were created by Thushani Bulumulle, music by JAYASRI, and video direction by Chamara Janaraj Pieris.

There will be two audio versions, says Rohitha – a Radio Mix and a DUB Mix by Parvez.

The JAYASRI twins Rohitha and Rohan

After their Italian tour, Rohitha and Rohan are planning to come to Sri Lanka, to oblige their many fans, and they are hoping that the showbiz scene would keep on improving so that music lovers could experience a whole lot of entertainment, during the forthcoming festive season.

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