The great Covid-19 divide is questionable

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World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has berated wealthy countries for preparing for booster shots to counter the new variant of Covid-19, Omicron. He said in a dry and concise tone that “no country can get out of the pandemic”. He pointed out that rich countries that used their vaccine stocks for their own people and refused to share them with poor countries cannot protect themselves because the pandemic does not stop at national borders. He says the pandemic is becoming virulent among populations who have not been vaccinated at all and that wealthy countries whose populations have had their double dose cannot continue to ignore the millions of unvaccinated in other countries.

The debate has been raging for some time now over vaccine equity, where it is both pragmatic and ethical to share vaccines designed in laboratories and manufactured by multinational pharmaceutical companies in rich countries with the poor in poor countries. Rich countries cannot hope to isolate themselves from the pandemic if it is rampant in the poorest regions of the world. But so far all the common sense calls, exhortations and warnings from rich countries seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Leaders in developed and developing countries have pledged to share vaccines with poor countries and have allocated meager aid budgets to help ship the vaccines for free. But they fell short of their promise because leaders and governments in developed countries were unable to convince for-profit pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to sell the vaccines to affordable prices to poor countries. . But multinational drug companies refused to budge, arguing that they had spent billions on research and development to make the vaccines and needed to make a profit to recoup the money they had invested. Even China and Russia have failed to respond to the vaccine crisis. They have not been able to produce their vaccines, Sinovac and Sputnik, in sufficient numbers to share them with poor countries.

Are we then faced with an ideological dispute between the principles of capitalism and those of socialism? Capitalism would imply that there are no free meals, which everyone has to pay for, and those who cannot lose. Socialism, on the other hand, involves sharing social wealth with others. But with the failure of socialism in many countries, it seems that the sentimentalism of sharing social wealth is impractical. But if capitalism is taken to its logical conclusion, then the people who can afford to pay will shrink so much that even if they pay, capitalist enterprises cannot be sustained. Capitalism needs big markets and millions of consumers. And as volumes increase, prices must come down. It makes sense in the market to sell vaccines to six billion people at affordable prices rather than restricting the market to a few hundred million. And it is also a principle of capitalism that markets must expand in order to maintain themselves. This would mean that if there are too many people who cannot buy then the markets will collapse.

The governments of the rich countries with their billions of dollars in budgets must step in to buy the vaccines from the big pharmaceutical companies and distribute them in the poorest countries. Or, pharmaceutical manufacturers must enable their counterparts in developing countries to produce vaccines more cheaply and make them available to the poor around the world. The blind focus on profits will sink rich countries and their rich companies.

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