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[Opinion] Corporate vs Systems change- Identifying a feminist way forward

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

By Dr. Lesley Ann Foster

Corporate capture has taken a stranglehold on Africa and most other countries in the South which is driving inequality on all levels. Absurd and unconscionable profits by Big Pharma were the feature of the COVID pandemic with scant attention paid to the cost to human beings.

The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the lives of people in the developing world with the lowest income countries being severely affected; the loss of lives, the increase in debt, and the hard knocks on economies resulted in untold hardship including millions of jobs lost, food insecurity, high levels of gender-based violence and deepened levels of poverty. The brunt of the pandemic was borne by women and girls.

According to the People's Vaccine Alliance, the pandemic created nine new billionaires from pharmaceutical companies. The Moderna vaccine was produced for as little as $2.85 a dose, yet its average cost is between $19 and $24 and can go cost up to $37 a dose. This gives a clear indication of how pharmaceutical companies in particular saw the opportunity to monetize access to what, in essence, are essential medicines for the gain of obscene profits at the expense of people's health and lives.

In 2021 alone, Moderna reported a revenue of 18 billion dollars and Pfizer of 37 billion dollars. These inexcusably inflated prices coupled with monopolised limited supply, made it almost prohibitive to lower- and middle-income countries. This exclusionary approach, which applies to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics clearly aim to deepen inequality by weakening the people and the economies of struggling countries. It flouts the commitment to securing the protection of human rights and the upholding of the standards of non-discrimination and substantive equality. It takes us back to the dark ages when Black Bodies were used for experimentation in the field of health, a practise which continues currently. In 2020, Johnson & Johnson used South African health workers—most of whom are women—in a mandatory program for their vaccine clinical trial. J&J also used national facilities for the fill and finish process stage of their vaccine, which were only made available to the South African population after much protest and pressure. Currently, the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine is reportedly under clinical trials in Congo, but the country still doesn't have a single dose for its population because doses have already been bought up by rich countries.

The Feminists for a Peoples Vaccine campaign is working with organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific developing countries, to advocate for an end to vaccine apartheid. The current intellectual property regime has failed to meet its obligations to secure health rights globally, especially since almost all COVID-19 vaccines, medicines, treatments, and diagnostics are firmly placed in the hands of private, multi-national pharmaceutical corporations, even when taxpayers finance a major part of product research and development. This is a travesty of justice because this institution has failed to deliver and is (by design) incapable of ensuring equitable, non-discriminatory, affordable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics.

As an African, I am outraged by the fact that approximately 1 billion people in developing countries remain unvaccinated. Africa continues to lag far behind with only 21.2% of its population fully vaccinated. Women and girls across these countries bear the impact of a lack of access to health services.

A decline in testing has also meant a disregard for the evolution of the virus, prompting the WHO Director-General to caution that reported cases are increasing in almost 70 countries worldwide.

Nearly 75% of populations in developed countries are fully vaccinated, as against only 17.5% of populations in developing countries.

By December 2021, of the more than 3 billion tests reported across the world, only 0.4% had been performed in developing countries, consequently leading to more undetected cases.

Due to IP barriers claimed and enforced by Big Pharma, entire poor populations are denied access to important diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.

The highest ratios of excess deaths to reported COVID-19 deaths occurred in parts of central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Across South Africa, we saw an estimated 2,6 million jobs lost with 2 out of 3 being lost to women. The SA Minister of Police reported 120 000 calls to the national domestic violence helpline in the first month of COVID-19. The department of health reported that in 2021, during the pandemic, more than 23000 teenage pregnancies occurred in just one of the country's nine provinces with 997 of those being girls aged 10-14 years. This starts off a generational cycle of poverty.

In Uganda, MEMPROW reported an increase in sexually transmitted diseases amongst young women due to restricted mobility during the period of lockdown and the lack of access to health care and reproductive technologies for extended periods. Masimanyane Women’s Rights International partners working across twelve African countries reported that the pandemic resulted in increased care burdens for women and girls which led to physical, emotional, and mental health problems.

Corporate capture as seen through the lens of the COVID 19 has widened the existing fissures of inequality, food, and personal insecurity as well as the lack of access to basic services such as education and healthcare.

Global challenges are increasing, and these require global solutions with all role-players taking responsibility and committing to collectively addressing the problems.

While we are able to some extent to hold states to account because we have mechanisms through the UN system for that, no such mechanisms exist for holding corporations to account. This requires a strong commitment from the UN member states to ensure that the power of corporations does not continue unbridled, undermining the very values of the institution.

As South Africans, we know that holding truth to power is an important strategy to stop the onslaught of attacks on our communities and society. We were faced with state and corporate capture which wreaked havoc on our country. We learned that an informed active citizenry, committed independent, investigative journalism and an independent judiciary were the most powerful resources we needed to stop the assault of the capture architects in our country. We were able to oust our President and his cohorts, and we are currently working to bring the culprits within the corporate sector to book. We successfully removed Shell corporation from exploiting our coastal areas and we have removed mining corporations such as the Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC) and its local subsidiary, Mineral Sands from our country with citizen protests. This is what collective responsibility looks like.

It is imperative that we curtail the growing hold of corporations globally whose real focus is on profits while flouting the human rights of citizens. The Feminists for a People’s Vaccine (FPV) echoes the sentiments of the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which affirmed that States must protect against the impact of the pandemic on individuals and groups subject to structural discrimination and disadvantage. It noted that discrimination is “in significant part attributed to consequences of the historic racial injustices of slavery and colonialism that remain largely unaccounted for today”.

The unequal distribution of vaccines between and within countries “manifests as a global system, privileging those former colonial powers to the detriment of formerly colonised states and descendants of enslaved groups,” CERD noted.

Furthermore, the committee called on all states to combat the pandemic, guided by principles of international solidarity including supporting the comprehensive intellectual property TRIPS Waiver proposal which was tabled by South Africa and India and co-sponsored by 64 countries. This spirit of solidarity should resemble that of the AIDS epidemic but be completely watered down by Northern countries such as the EU, the UK, Switzerland, and the US, entrenching existing vaccine apartheid and all other inequalities.

A South African NGO, Treatment Action Campaign, supported by South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela successfully challenged Big Pharma and Northern countries to secure affordable antiretrovirals for the country's population to fight HIV/AIDS.

COVID-19 is not over therefore we must continue to see that deep unacceptable inequality in access to diagnostics, therapeutics, and treatment is urgently addressed. We urge the UN General assembly to apply a global PUBLIC GOOD approach to replace the current intellectual property regime

This is a presentation made Dr. Lesley Anne Foster at the Global People's Assembly


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