Pfizer has only one, yes ONE, factory to produce all vaccines for all countries outside of the United States. And on Friday, it announced that it would have to delay promised deliveries for ‘a few weeks’ while it is upgrading this factory in Belgium. Instead of standing up to Big Pharma, EU countries have shown no more than resignation hidden by some grumbling. Except for some isolated voices, no one has dared suggest that countries use an existing legal mechanism: compulsory licensing. That would mean that anyone could start producing the vaccine. And it’s legal.
Indeed, the 1995 TRIPS Agreement (Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) negotiated by the World Trade Organisation includes Article 31, which states that countries „may use of the subject matter of a patent without the authorization of the right holder“ if their legislation allows for exceptions. And according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), 156 countries currently allow such exceptions, including all EU countries. So what are we waiting for?
While this law is different in each country, it usually gives the right to the state to use compulsory licensing in cases of health emergency and/or when the producer is unable to deliver. Hard not to think about the current situation, right? It is obvious that Big Pharma makes more money by producing itself, distributing itself, setting its own prices, but it is now failing to meet demands and its greed needs to be stopped. All we need is to apply the law, make the vaccine license open to all, let all producers use their capacities to produce it.
Public authorities not only have the duty, but also the right to do so, especially since there has been about 12 billion USD of public funds involved in developing those vaccines, with very little transparency about any related conditions. The Moderna vaccine has become the most striking example of the neoliberal tradition of privatizing profit and socializing expenses. Whereas this small company developed the vaccine exclusively thanks to public funds, and the US government jointly owns the rights, there has been no challenge to the firm’s right to make excessive profits. And it is not shying away from it, selling its doses almost twice the price of the Pfizer vaccine, and almost ten times more than the AstraZeneca one. Even worse, Moderna’s top three executives executives have made more than a 100 million USD by selling their stocks just after announcing the vaccine’s successful development.
Don’t worry, Pfizer & co. won’t die of hunger if we take their vaccines: the law already foresees compensations for compulsory licensing. But there is no legal right to unlimited profits in a time of epidemic emergency. We have suffered enough from the fact that governments have abandoned their role in pharmarceutical research and development and let this field to the whims of Big Pharma. The very same giants that decided not to pursue research on earlier forms of coronaviruses because it didn’t seem financially profitable are now telling us to stay quiet and wait so that they can make a profit? No, societies need to take back their health safety under control and manage it according to the general interest, and not the profits of shareholders.
Already in the first months of the pandemic, there were calls to makes vaccines a ‘public common good’ once they would be developed. On April 24th, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, backed the idea when she said that the future vaccine would be „our universal, common good“. Then, at the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) May 2020 summit, China pledged that it would not license its vaccine, if it succeeded in developing one, making it available for all countries to produce and use. But as vaccines developed by major Western corporations received the green light in late 2020, it became clear that their distribution would follow the laws of the jungle: vaccines for the richest countries, profits for the corporations.
In December 2020, around a hundred countries led by India and South Africa tried to move the WTO Assembly into adopting a resolution waiving intellectual copyrights on anti-Covid vaccination and drugs. They were met by the flat refusal of Western countries, who harbour the headquarters, laboratories, factories and shareholders of Big Pharma. In doing so, Western countries are going directly against the interests (and health and life) of their own citizens, not to talk of humanity in general, but they are successfully upholding the global neoliberal status quo concentrating power and money in the West.
During the pandemic, the global Left has been mostly struck by apathy, sitting back with some Schadenfreude as right-wing governments that had been claiming for years that ‘there is no magic money tree’ started pouring trillions into the economy. Apart from some solidarity actions and calls to protect workers and the vulnerable, the left has not been able to raise its voice to push for more decisive action in the anti-pandemic response, from putting workers’ health before profit to standing up to Big Pharma. Some iniatives are now appearing and we need to rally behind them, taking the streets from the far-right bolstered by conspiracy theorists. From the ‘Zero Covid’ plan to the EU-wide ‘No Profit on Pandemic’ initiative, now is the time to rise and challenge the incompetent and corrupt neoliberal forces.
Looking at pro-Trump far-right supporters breaking in the Capitol, many mainstream opinion-makers shake their heads over the dangers of polarisation and extremism, providing the (far-) right with a convenient discourse about “both sides” and advocating a return to a status quo that brought us where we are. But in times of rising fascism and increasing inequalities, polarization is a necessity.
A commentary by Jan Fürth
Taken out of context, polarisation and division discourses sound really neat to the ears of the average citizen. Who wouldn’t want harmony and unity? But when a dangerous far-right ideology is rising, the very same discourses are used to either condemn resistance as “polarising” or to discard it as analogous to the very same threat it is standing up to. Uncompromisingly standing up to these hateful ideas makes you a polarising figure. Taking the streets to face off violent far-right thugs makes you a thug. In the end, all that is left is to either settle for this far-right extreme as a lesser evil or sit tightly under a new ‘moderate’ normalcy. A right-wing neo-liberal one, of course.
This naive faith in the absolute need for moderation becomes dangerous blindness when there is a shift in ideology towards the far right. If one always ought to stand in the middle, then how far rightwards should one go in a country where the president and one of the two parties has shifted towards fascism? How much understanding should we show for far-right ideas when they become a growing part of the mainstream? Are the murders of some unarmed African-Americans OK because of the majority’s racism? Should one accept at least some children in cages because a majority of citizens approve of it? Should the coup attempt be met with some understanding for the far-right mob? Shouldn’t one abstain from criticising and mobilizing to avoid polarisation?
A logical consequence of discourses on polarisation is the understanding that there are two poles, two extremes. Indeed, there cannot be polarisation without two completely opposed camps, and thus we find ourselves left with the well-known ‘both sides’ discourse from Donald Trump’s reaction to the 2017 Charlotteville far-right terror attack. All critiques of the far right are being met by a barrage of ‘whataboutist’ fire, pitting the coordinated attack on the central institution of decision-making against the vandalism happening in the margins of some BLM demonstrations. By pushing this line, far-right violence is minimized and its structural and institutional character is obscured.
According to this view, Trump’s far-right movement is only an answer to – and even a defense against – the specter of some kind of ‘BLM Antifa neo-marxist anarcho-bolshevist’ threat, or rather conspiracy, against the United States. In the U.S. American context, this ‘red scare’ becomes a powerful weapon to present Trump as a lesser evil, relativizing his far-right views as necessary to avoid another kind of – this time un-American – extremism. Thus the polarization thesis becomes an appeal to choose your side, with a powerful far-right media machine making sure that you’ll make the right choice.
In addition to giving ammunition to the far-right movement, the polarisation-and-two-extremes argument is also being pushed by (centre-)right forces that are looking to re-establish the status quo ante – going back to the pre-2016 situation. The equivalence thesis then becomes an appeal to go back to the ‘golden mean’, i.e. the kind of consensus-based politics that are celebrated by (neo-)liberal and some conservative commentators as ‘reasonable’ and ‘civilized’. As we know from U.S.American politics dominated by two right-wing parties, this middle-ground is very much tilting towards the right. In this sense, calls for moderation are powerful appeals to upholding the current status quo, which is the continuation of the kind of right-wing neoliberal policies we have been seeing since Ronald Reagan won the elections in 1981, and even earlier: neo-liberal economics, institutionalized racism and U.S. military imperialism.
When Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are attacked as ‘extremist’ or ‘polarizing’, including by people from their own party, this right-wing normalcy is being reestablished again and again. The centre-right Democratic majority can distance itself from these ‘extremists’ in its ranks and claim to be the voice of reason in contrast to a Republican party that has been seized by its far-right wing. The hope being, of course, that their position as the status quo will be embraced by a majority of electors equally convinced about the need for a ‘return to the normalcy’. And there you go: you have Joe Biden.
While the Democrats’ bet worked out in a context of global pandemic with important human losses and catastrophic socio-economic consequences, especially in the United States, it has proved a risky one, and the gains are rather meager. Their lame strategy could only be saved by extraordinary efforts by women of color and other community organisers, but it doesn’t bode well for the future, as we can expect the business-as-usual technocratic approach of the Biden administration to fail to tackle the class and racial inequalities plaguing the country, not to speak of the climate crisis. In the meantime, the promoters and accomplices of the ‘polarisation’ discourses will make sure that the United States will stay stuck in the same right-wing neo-liberal dead-end, with a Trump-like escape into a far-right alternative reality remaining the only mean of expression for the country’s frustrations.
Far from being a strictly U.S.American issue, the ‘polarization’ discourse has also been visible in European discussions and has been prominent in recent discussions of events in Washington. As The Jacobin was reporting lately, no other than… British left-wing politician Jeremy Corbyn was attacked by commentators talking about the Capitol assault! In Germany, it was a deputy from Merkel’s right-wing CDU Party, Thomas Heilmann, who put on the same level Trump and Antifa or the German street movement against the far-right AfD party, saying that “Polarisation and denigration always lead to hate and violence”.
We must reject empty discourses about polarisation that carefully avoid to talk about fascism and instrumentalize far-right terrorism to attack the Left. Let’s call things by their names and categorically refuse false equivalences between fascism and anti-fascism, between racism and anti-racism, between far-right authoritarianism and broad popular leftist movements challenging the status quo. In times of rising fascism, polarisation is a duty. Polarisation is society breaking up. It’s up to us to organize, unite and rebuild!