To judge from some press releases, the vaccine needs of the world’s poor are being met by COVAX, Gavi and Cepi, but behind swish websites who are they?
The World Health Organisation’s COVAX program “working for global equitable access” trumpets “With a fast-moving pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is safe”.
However it is perhaps telling that the WEF last September described it thus:
- COVAX aims to ensure all countries have access to a safe, effective vaccine.
- Richer countries gain access to a portfolio of potential vaccines, avoiding the risk of
backing any one candidate.
- Lower income countries get financial support and equal access to a vaccine once
available. (My italics!)
Hmmmm….. Charity, not equality!
CEPI describes itself as another “…global partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil society organisations”. It was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos four years ago and attracted funds for research from governments and trusts. Established in the wake of the Ebola epidemic where there had been competition for access to vaccine, CEPI originally demanded affordable pricing of vaccines, transparency and sharing of data from all those who had benefitted from its funds.
However, under pressure from pharmaceutical corporations (primarily Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, but with unnamed parties threatening non-cooperation), these policies were ditched in 2018 bringing protest from Médecins Sans Frontières.
Gavi, (officially “Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance”, originally the “Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization”) was established in 2000. It is co-chaired by Bill Gates, and claims to have already helped vaccinate 822m children in the world’s poorest countries against other diseases. It asserts: “…Gavi pools country demand, guarantees long-term, predictable funding and brings down prices”.
Laudable, but a decade ago it was likewise criticised by MSF for failing to push down prices and favouring new drugs rather than simpler health approaches. We thus see self-acknowledged public-private partnerships, supporting the political-economic status quo, with a high degree of effective control over access to pharmaceuticals by poor people and perhaps promoting a dependency modus operandi.
This may be unfair. It must be acknowledged that the Gates Foundation has funded the survival of many thousands of children. But it appears not to have supported a revolution or challenge to neo-colonial “pharmocracy”.
Gates’ humanitarian vision is impressive and has been communicated to millions; but it’s technological rather than political. Give this a couple of minutes and see if you agree.
I wonder what would happen were Melinda to wake up Bill one night and say: “Hey, Honey, I’ve been thinking about Microsoft’s mission statement- ‘empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more’; let’s!”
— Stephen Pennells
Of course wealth disparities have multiple causes, but one of the causes in the current pandemic clearly is vaccine nationalism.
It’s accepted that a (the?) primary responsibility of governments is to protect their populations, but rich countries in the global North have used their high credit standing to enable them not only to domestic largesse but also in panic buying of not yet produced vaccines. They have hedged their bets with vast over-ordering, depriving others of the chance to get materials from producers. Canada is said to have bought five times as much vaccine as it needs; meanwhile the Mirror reports the UK having ordered 407m doses– for a population of 68m.
One.org suggested in February more equity should be achieved by radical sharing and called for it at the G7 meeting.
This didn’t happen and the subsequent shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia reflects European “business as usual” attitudes; production difficulties meant AZ hadn’t been able to fulfil its contract with the EU and Italy leapt in to retain stock due for export.
In South Africa many remember the deaths of millions of AIDS suffers in the 90s whilst drug companies sat on ARV patents and incompetent governments failed to intervene. Seeing a repeating situation and with the consciousness of Black Lives Matter the term #VaccineApartheid has been coined. This is painfully obvious there with even the Oxford AstraZeneca treatment costing twice the UK price.
Whilst AZ have pledged to hold prices to “at cost” for low income countries, the Serum Institute of India which has produced under license was not so regulated.
Added to this posturing for domestic audiences there have been daily stories about squabbles and bickering over the efficacy of different treatments.
Vaccine Diplomacy – Vaccine War
The provision of Vaccines has been identified as a new form of diplomacy and spreading soft power. This is seen positively by former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and was recently exemplified on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour (Sun. 28 March ).
Russia and China are seen as stealing a march on the West with sacrificial donations in key locations (e.g. the Balkans and Ethiopia) where they may hope to reestablish influence lost in recent years. It’s possible some of the stop-go confusion about vaccine efficacy and safety has been fermented to further geopolitical influence.
Things seem to be hotting up. Six months ago Microsoft reported Russian and North Korean hacking of “health care organisations”. Reuters also reported North Korean attacks on AstraZeneca. More recently the agency reported Chinese state hackers attacking the IT systems of the Serum Institute of India and another company, assertions denied by the Chinese government.
A Vaccine Peace Treaty?
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO who in January called vaccine inequality “a catastrophic moral failure” on 30 March called for a international health treaty to promote pandemic preparedness. Johnson, Merkel and Macron support this. But the text does not fundamentally challenge the current structures and modus operandi.
These structures and praxes are clearly not meeting the need to protect the global population as quickly or as equitably as could be achieved.
The result of this is the nullification of many years of economic and development progress along with social liberation. As usual those communities and individuals without the dollars to cushion them are pushed to the back of the queue or invited to accrue future obligations and mindsets.
Of course charity is welcome when it saves lives. But in the current situation it seems people facing pandemics need a deal that takes account of their situation and needs, rather than simply relying on the charity of others which may or may not be delivered.
A new approach is needed:
Solidarity and Global Justice
To find out what this might entail come to the webinar on 14th. Apr.- visit tinyurl.com/peoplesvaccine
As coronavirus takes lives, devastates families and destroys businesses, some are planning to reap profits from the disaster. No, I’m not referring to the usual suspects, supermarkets, internet giants and delivery companies, but to secretive cabals of corporate lawyers, who form the arbitrations system for international trade disputes. These corporate courts are heavily biased in favour of transnational capitalist corporations and against the rights of ordinary people and the sustainability of the natural environment.
And they have immense power. Currently, Pakistan faces the confiscation of its assets abroad, including hotels and aircraft owned by the state airline, because of a totally unrelated dispute over a copper mine. Meanwhile, another mining company is planning to sue Tanzania. What is going on?
Poisoning the Rainforest
For over 20 years, from 1972 to 1993, the US oil company Texaco spilled 30bn gallons of crude oil and other waste into the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador. Ordered by the Ecuadorian courts to clear up the mess, parent company Chevron simply took their case to an ISDS tribunal, which agreed with them that they had no liability. The environment suffered a double whammy, while rainforest was poisoned, the extracted oil was burned to produce more greenhouse gasses. Meanwhile, people in the affected area are forced to live with Chevrons filthy legacy of oil polluted water.
What are corporate courts?
‘Corporate courts’ are a tribunals run by corporate lawyers for the benefit of giant trans-national corporations (TNCs) and rich investors. They allow foreign companies to sue national governments and overrule domestic laws and regulations that reduce their profitability. They are used by the powerful TNCs to prevent regulations protecting consumers, workers, livestock or the environment.
Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now has pointed out:
Putting cigarettes in plain packaging, banning dangerous chemicals, raising the minimum wage, stopping toxic power plants being built – anything that might affect big business’s bottom line can lead to a claim being lodged.
The Brexit deal that the UK has recently signed with the EU does not include a corporate court clause, but many of the deals which are being currently signed do contain them, and corporate lobbyists are pressing the Government to make corporate courts part of any trade deal which the Government now signs.
Time and time again, corporate courts find against local communities and environmental interests in favour of corporate profits. In 2011, in response to public pressure, the Provincial Government of Quebec severely restricted fracking and other hydrocarbon extraction activities in its territory. A company called Lone Pine, which had been given exploration permits, objected. Lone Pine is actually based in Canada, but because it is formally registered in the US, it was able to use the ISDS system to demand compensation.
Key features of corporate courts (ISDS, ICS)
- They usually meet in secret;
- Only foreign companies can lodge claims, typically against national governments;
- Ordinary citizens, domestic companies, trade unions, watchdogs and even national governments are barred from taking action through these courts;
- There are not usually presided over by qualified judges, the cases are heard by corporate lawyers;
- Court officials are paid by the hour, giving them a vested interest in awarding claims in order to attract more work;
- They operate independently of national judicial systems;
- There is usually no right of appeal.
France’s environmental law
But polluting companies don’t only use ISDS to demand compensation. They can also use it to directly influence government policy.
In 2017 environmental activist Nicolas Hulot became France’s Environment Minister. In July, he brought forward the draft of an ambitious law which would have ended fossil fuel extraction on all French territory by 2040. Some projects would have ended as soon as 2021 and only a few would remain by 2030.
In August 2017, the French Council of State received notice from lawyers representing the Canadian oil and gas company Vermilion, threatening to take action through the ISDS system if their investments were threatened. Vermilion is responsible for 75% of French oil production.
By September, Hulot’s law had been effectively neutered. The draft now allowed for the renewal of oil exploitation permits until 2040. Existing projects would continue unhindered for the next 20 years. The final version of the law even allowed exploitation permits to be renewed after the 2040 deadline.
A year later, Hulot resigned his post, citing the excessive influence of corporate lobbyists on environmental policy making.
The ISDS system of corporate courts first came to prominence as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. It has a deeply unpleasant history. In one of its first cases, the US company Ethyl sued the Canadian Government to allow the use of a known human neurotoxin in its product. Despite the ingredient being banned in its home country, the USA, Ethyl was able to bully the Canadians into allowing them to use the neurotoxin.
The Australian tobacco scandal
In 2011, the tobacco giant Altria Group, owners of Philip Morris International, took the Australian Government to court in an attempt to prevent the introduction of ‘plain packaging’ laws. Although the Australian High Court kicked out their claim, Alteria pursued it through the corporate court set up by a trade treaty that Australia had made with Hong Kong. Again they lost, but this time on a technicality. Alteria had attempted to use a shell company to pursue its claim. However, the company was not registered at the time that the laws were introduced.
The legal costs, paid by the Australian taxpayer, amounted to Aus$50 million. This was enough of a victory for the tobacco companies. Using the threat of such court cases, they have bullied poorer countries such as Uruguay and Togo into backing down on anti-tobacco legislation.
TTIP, CETA and ICS
When all else fails, change the name…
The courts go under several names, most notably ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement), or ICS (Investment Court System).
The Stop-TTIP and Stop-CETA movements won some concessions on corporate courts. The Investment Court System (ICS) which is incorporated into the CETA treaty does, at least, require that cases are heard by real judges, rather than corporate lawyers. However, the judges will still be paid by the hour, creating a perverse incentive to find in favour of the corporate litigant.
According to the Deutscher Richterbund, Germany’s largest association of judges and public prosecutors:
“Neither the proposed procedure for the appointment of judges of the ICS nor their position meet the international requirements for the independence of courts.”
ISDS, in its modified form of Investor Court System (ICS):
- Rewards judges for finding in favour of corporations
- Promotes legal creativity through vague provisions such as protection for the ‘legitimate expectations’ of corporate investors
- Has no limits on the amount of compensation that can be paid to investors
- Causes regulatory chill, by making it risky for governments to to legislate for environmental, public health or workplace protection
The corporate lobby think they can hoodwink ordinary people by changing the name of the system. We think they’re wrong.
Drilling in the Adriatic
When UK based Rockhopper Exploration began sinking test drills in the Adriatic, citizens of Italy’s idyllic Abruzzo region were horrified. For a region with a heavy investment in tourism, the prospect of a new oil industry just offshore was an immediate threat to jobs and businesses, to say nothing of the long term environmental destruction.
In increasingly large numbers, tens of thousands protested on the streets demanding government action and in 2017 the Italian Government responded, refusing Rockhopper a license to drill and placing a moratorium on all future operations off the Italian coast.
Rockhopper is claiming up to US$350m compensation through the ISDS procedure. This is 7x what they have invested in exploration.
Uniper v the Netherlands
German based company Uniper is threatening the Dutch government following its decision to ban coal-based power generation by 2030. This would force Uniper to close its new coal-fired plant, which it hopes to keep running until 2056. It seems that the company is claiming that a transition to biomass is not viable.
The action would use the controversial Energy Charter Treaty which has triggered more ISDS claims than any other trade agreement.
Where we stand today
The UK has been identified as one of the major centres of activity for carpetbagging corporate lawyers seeking to exploit international trade deals to promote the agenda of the TNCs.
- Corporate courts are increasingly being used to resist the switch away from climate changing hydrocarbons, as big oil corporations attempt to protect their profits.
- Paper companies, which allow tTNCs to pretend they are operating in a country even when they are not, are still being used to gain access to the corporate court system. South Korea alone has signed 99 separate trade agreements which allow this practice.
- The system is still being used to bully poorer countries, some of whom struggle to fund even the costs of litigation.
We’ve been campaigning hard to stop the US-UK trade deal, but it is not the only threat to post-Brexit sovereignty, as the Government rushes to smuggle a whole raft of dangerous deals under the radar while the country is distracted by coronavirus lockdowns and the EU negotiations.
The recent deal with Japan is a prime example – it lacks many of the privacy protections that we are used to. The Government calls this ‘improving data flows’, but what it really means is that your private details can be traded on the open market.
And Parliament has little control over the process. The Trade Bill is stuck in a ping-pong match between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as the latter attempts to introduce an element of democracy into a Bill that essentially gives Government Ministers the power to do whatever they want with no effective oversight.
The Japan deal itself has little immediate effect, as the trade in data with Japan is currently minimal. But it is the thin end of a very thick wedge, as it sets precedents for the much bigger deals which the Government is edging towards with the US and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Selling our birthright
A major focus of UK-US post-Brexit trade negotiations will be the NHS patient database. It is probably the biggest, and most complete, collection of personal medical records in the world – an extremely valuable resource which can be used to improve healthcare provision. It can also be a source of massive profit for private companies – and a threat to the privacy of individual patients.
Google is already working with US healthcare companies to find profitable ways of exploiting such data, and they have already grabbed 1.6m patient records from the NHS, through an illegal collaboration with the Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust.
Would you want a website to know your ethnic background?
Another danger posed by unregulated data flows their use by racist and other discriminatory algorithms. Recently, the Home Office was discovered to be using such an algorithm for ‘streamlining’ visa applications. Not only did the algorithm discriminate against applications from citizens of certain countries, it also used its own decisions as data for rating countries, thus creating a feedback loop of ever strengthening prejudice.
Both sides of the Atlantic have seen a growth in supposedly ‘predictive’ policing, based on machine learning. In the US, campaigners have been attacking the use of facial-recognition technology which ‘predicts’ the criminality of suspects, based on their appearance.
Insurance companies and credit agencies are also investing heavily in this kind of technology.
‘The public-private partnership from hell’
The business model of internet giants Facebook and Google is based on harvesting personal information about us to use for commercial purposes. These companies want to be able to move that information freely about the globe, passing it from company to company in search of profit. Much of this data will inevitably end up in the countries with the loosest legal regulation on its use
Cory Doctorow describes the current regime of data governance in the US as ‘the public-private partnership from hell, as corporations collect data for commercial purposes and share it with government agencies under the Homelands Security Act. It is a model that is no doubt being eyed by repressive governments everywhere.
The ‘internet of things’ and perpetual surveillance
Increasingly, everyday things are controlled by computers connected to the internet: electric meters; cars; fridges; computer games; TVs; stereo speakers; watches… You name it, it will
soon become part of the internet of things. And it will all be capable of collecting data and sending it to a central database. To be used… for what? Some of the potential uses may have great benefits for humankind. Others may just enable vast profits to be made. Some may be sinister, encroaching on our freedom or perpetuating injustice.
Who is to decide what will be permitted? Secretive corporate courts, held under the auspices of trade treaties outside democratic control? The next few years will decide this question.
The pandemic preoccupying and dominating the public’s consciousness, many more fundamental issues are in danger of being overlooked. So Global Justice Now, along with Trade Unions, War on Want, Traidcraft and others called for a national Day of Action on Saturday 24th. October, looking for images to use in publicity and for a photo petition as well as to raise awareness in the general population.
The threatened trade deal has numerous strands, all of which threaten our institutions, our standards and our democracy. They are even more dangerous to people in the Global South. If the UK’s acceptance is rolled out as a benchmark of what is required to trade with the dominant economic powers. In Manchester, we united with allies and made several outings to protest the deal. We also invited people to send in and post photos of themselves, their dogs, homes and associates with the message “Stop the US Trade Deal”.
Thursday (22nd. Oct.) saw us in Chorlton, exploiting the wide pavement outside Oxfam on Wilbraham Road and using a simple quiz-display to stimulate engagement with questions on US standards in food hygiene (how many rat hairs are allowed in 25g of cinnamon), permitted insecticide residues allowed on apples, toxic ingredients banned in cosmetics, and the expected cost of the 50 most expensive medicines used in primary care. This proved an excellent way of engaging people. Unusually we didn’t have cards to sign but the excellent flyer GJN had produced gives a link to an e-action and we had a QR code for those who wanted to find out more with their mobile phones. Footfall was disappointing, but with a higher than usual percentage engaging.
Next day we focused on the threat to democratic authorities taking action to stop climate change and joined with War on Want, Fridays for the Future, and Greater Manchester Campaign Against Climate Change’s normal vigil outside the Central Library.
Even the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst joined the protest, reminding Boris Johnson of his commitment on climate change, “We must act now, right now … extinction is forever, so our action must be immediate,” with the suffragist slogan slogan “Deeds Not Words”.
This brought honks of support from passing traffic and was streamed live by a KONP supporting media student.
Pia Feig (a GJN member and NHS activist spoke about the threat to our health service, not simply in being directly “taken over”, but of the threat of “standstill and ratchet clauses” being included in the deal, progressively biting off chunks of our service.
She also drew attention to the looting of the NHS patient records database. This is probably the most complete patient health database in the world and is an extremely valuable resource for medical research. Its sale to trans-national corporations is one of the least noticed ways in which the the Government is privatising the NHS. It is yet another example of how publicly funded research and knowledge production is expropriated by trans-national capital for profit, rather than being used for the benefit of patients. Big Pharma will look for lucrative opportunities to develop expensive medicines for minor complaints, rather than tackling public health priorities. Meanwhile, US insurance companies will want to use the data to identify and discriminate against the most vulnerable by refusing insurance to them.
Stephen Pennells picked up on the indirect threats to health, reprising the threat to nutrition through US food standards before going on to talk about employment, climate change, government secrecy and the worrying record of Biden, as Obama’s deputy supporting TTIP. This means that whoever is elected President, the campaign will have to further intensify. Both govenments, freed from the deadline of the US election will want something to spin as an economic opportunity in the aftermath of the pandemic’s effect on business, jobs and profits.
These actions reinforced alliances and spread our message. We learnt that we need to develop our media skills. Our speeches were unscripted and reasonable in terms of the “Just a Minute” criteria of speaking without “hesitation, repetition or deviation”. However a quarter of an hour is too long for modern attention spans and it would have benefitted from interactive questioning or reflective prompts.
So we are planning to work on this with a couple of our new recruits, one of whom is a new media student at Salford Uni. If you would like to be involved, don’t be shy!