We all know the story now. Or at least the way it’s told, and will be told, in the official books.
The story goes that in the dying days of 2019, a massively infectious virus appeared that would grind the world to a halt. Attacking the body’s respiratory system and spreading like wildfire, by mid-2021, official counts put the number of worldwide cases of COVID-19 at nearly 200 million, and the number of deaths from the disease at almost 4.2 million. The real tally would be far greater, and only approximated in years to come. The picture would, however, be dramatically bleaker had it not been for the much-needed saviour that arrived in late 2020: A vaccine. A number of vaccines, as a matter of fact. Amid a spiraling death count and worries over new variants, the world rapidly embraced this salvation, and nations around the world organized themselves and begun the largest vaccination programme in history. Those less powerful and less wealthy countries who, for one reason or another, lacked the vaccine access of the wealthier nations, were assisted by generous donations from the more privileged. Gradually, painfully, with huge losses continuing during the vaccination drive, the world community nevertheless managed to beat back and subdue the worst pandemic in over a century.
That’s the way the narrative will go in the august institutions of establishment media. That’s how the powerful will pat our systems on the back. The further the COVID-19 pandemic recedes into memory, the stronger this sanitised and anodyne version will be pushed.
But there’s so much missing from that story. All the details and context that make it less of the congratulatory ode to science that and human ingenuity some have tried to paint it as, and more of the stark warning of how the next few catastrophic decades on planet Earth will play out that it is.
If we want a glimpse of what is to come in the years and decades of the climate crisis to come, all we have to do is look at how the world responded to COVID-19.
Patents, profits, and colonial legacy.
So what is the real story?
The real story lies—as it so often does—in the divide between the rich and the poor; in the exploitation of the global South by the global North.
The picture presented of the global vaccine rollout is so often one of staggering scientific success above all else. And while the rapid development and rollout of (in particular) the mRNA technology behind the vaccine is an achievement to be lauded, it does not exist in a vacuum. The distribution of the vaccines hints at the full story.
Consider the picture at the time of writing, late July 2021:
According to Our World in Data, 27.3% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 13.8% being fully vaccinated. Yet in low-income countries, only 1.1% of people have received at least one dose of a vaccine.
A similar report in The Guardian from a month prior found that 48 countries in the world had a vaccination rate of more than 50 per 100 people. Out of those 48, only one country—Mongolia—counts as a low or lower-middle income country.
This horrifically unequal picture came about because the world still operates along the colonial lines violently established centuries ago. The European powers—and newer colonialist enterprises like the United States, Canada, and Israel—scrambled to use their ill-gotten material power to buy up the vast majority of the available vaccines, leaving the rest of the world not just struggling with supply, but dependent on charity from those nations that have historically impoverished them. In November 2020, an article in Nature summed up the state of the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines:
The 27 member states of the European Union together with five other rich countries have pre-ordered about half of [the global capacity] (including options, written into their contracts, to order extra doses, and negotiations that have been disclosed but not yet finalized). These countries account for only around 13% of the global population.
The charity in question is of course the Covax scheme, set up so that the planet’s richer countries could subsidize the costs for those less well off, as well as facilitating donations from the former to the latter. The scheme has consistently fallen short of its own goals. As per a report in Politico in January 2021:
COVAX, the joint effort to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines managed by the World Health Organization (WHO); Gavi, the Vaccines Alliance; and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), was meant to solve so-called vaccine nationalism, but it has struggled to get off the ground. Although it has secured around 2 billion doses — with the goal of covering 20 percent of participant countries’ populations by the end of 2021 — none have been delivered.
And while its backers say the facility is “on track,” it’s still short of about $2.8 billion for 2021.
The level of vaccine access inequality around the world is of a truly mind-boggling scale. According to a report in the BBC from April 2021:
The World Health Organization (WHO) has criticised what it describes as a “shocking imbalance” in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines between rich and poor countries.
“There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference on Friday.
“On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people have received a Covid-19 vaccine. In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500,” he said.
High-income countries currently hold a confirmed 4.6 billion doses, while low-middle income nations hold 670 million, according to research by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
Similarly, the WHO also published a report in late July 2021 that looked at how the world is cleaving further in two in its response to the pandemic:
“In some low- and middle-income countries, less than 1 per cent of the population is vaccinated - this is contributing to a two-track recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”, said UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner.
According to the new Dashboard, which builds on data from multiple entities including the IMF, World Bank, UNICEF and Gavi, and analysis on per capita GDP growth rates from the World Economic Outlook, richer countries are projected to vaccinate quicker and recover economically quicker from COVID-19, while poorer countries haven’t even been able to vaccinate their health workers and most at-risk population and may not achieve pre-COVID-19 levels of growth until 2024. Meanwhile, Delta and other variants are driving some countries to reinstate strict public health social measures. This is further worsening the social, economic and health impact, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised people.
While the Covax scheme has been much praised by those who run it, as well as certain segments of the commentariat, it’s the words of socialist Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara that prove most insightful: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ In other words, it’s not enough to point out that the vaccine charity scheme set up to help the world’s poor is failing, it’s imperative to interrogate why the scheme needed to be set up in the first place.
An article in Nature from May 2021 gets at the root cause of the issue:
The core problem is that vaccine manufacturing, research and development is too heavily concentrated in a small group of high- and middle-income countries. Companies in these countries, which are also the main IP holders, have sold the majority of available vaccine doses to their own governments, and to governments of other high-income nations. Some 6 billion doses out of the 8.6 billion confirmed purchases so far have been pre-ordered by governments in high- and middle-income countries.
As Nature went to press, the number of vaccines given so far in Africa amounted to little more than one dose per person for some 2% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people. This is, among other factors, because the continent currently imports 99% of its vaccines, and because African countries lack the pre-order purchasing capacity of richer nations. It is why the African Union has announced a plan for 60% of Africa’s vaccines to be manufactured on the continent by 2040.
So we have a small group of rich countries in the global North, who had achieved and maintained their wealth through the exploitation and subjugation of the populations of the global South, hoarding (in many cases—the EU’s original vaccine order proving enough to vaccinate its population many times over) excess vaccines in an effort to inoculate their populations before anyone else can purchase them. On top of that, we have those very same rich countries expending considerable effort to block the waiving of vaccine patent rights that many poorer nations have repeatedly requested and which would save countless lives. The blame for the sheer volume of excess deaths in the global South as a result of COVID-19 can be laid directly at the feet of the colonial countries of the global North.
The UK as damning case study.
As is so often the case, the situation of the small, miserable island in the North Atlantic proves to be a useful study when it comes to issues of greed, power, and colonialism.
Britain has had one of the most successful COVID-19 vaccine rollouts in the world, vaccinating early, quickly, efficiently, and with an early change to dosage intervals aimed at maximising the amount of partially protected individuals that at first struck many as risky and slapdash but was later largely vindicated by experience. This is in large part due to its wealth and position in the global power rankings—and thus its privileged position above the global South. Yet despite the successes of its vaccination programme, the UK managed to bungle its response to the pandemic in almost every other way, attaining one of the worst death rates and tallies (150,000+) in the world. Looking at why this is the case provides us with a glimpse into the future of capitalism’s response to the climate crisis that will define the coming years and decades.
The list of the UK’s failures is almost impressive, as if someone were running an experiment on how to react to a pandemic in the worst possible way. A delayed lockdown in March 2020 is widely seen as responsible for approximately 20,000 additional deaths. Similarly slow action in locking down again in September and December of that year added to the fatalities. The closure of schools—seen by many scientists to be one of the most effective ways of slowing the spread of infection—was constantly put off. As an island, Britain is uniquely positioned to protect itself from pandemics, yet the Tory government’s glacially slow movement in introducing any border checks or quarantining arrangements—people were flying in from all over the world with nary a check to be seen at UK airports for the majority of the first wave of the pandemic—added to the death count by a considerable amount. The government’s privatised test and trace scheme was a complete disaster, costing billions for almost no return. Support for people being asked to self-isolate as a result of contact with Covid-19 was woefully inadequate. When seeking advice on its response, the government ignored social scientists and local public health and social care leaders. Care homes were abandoned to a tidal wave of fatalities. The list goes on and on, a blackly comic litany. At the very start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister himself, Boris Johnson, missed five emergency Cobra meetings because he was busy writing a biography of his much touted idol, Winston Churchill (another dogsh*t biography of a mad posh racist, just what the world needs).
The sheer volume of wrong decisions made by the UK during the pandemic has led many to question how any government could be so incompetent. The answer lies in the figures. What they show is a scale of institutional corruption and upwards wealth tax transferral that still—somehow, despite decades of experience—has the power to shock. While a pandemic ripped through the country, killing people by the thousands and immiserating millions, the governing Tory party enriched itself and its mates, lining their pockets with eye-watering sums of money that should have been used to support an effective public health response. As that old adage goes: Never let a good crisis go to waste.
In the first months following COVID-19’s emergence, the Tory government spent around £18 billion on pandemic response contracts. It did this often using emergency procurement regulations that meant that tendering processes were opaque, with bidding frequently not even opened up to multiple potential providers. Contracts would simply go to whoever the Tories handpicked, with minimal oversight over the process. A separate £15 billion or so was spent on PPE. Much of this money was also handed out in speedy ways free of scrutiny, and often to companies with minimal experience of the industry. An April 2021 article in the British Medical Journal concluded that:
A fifth of UK government contracts awarded to respond to the covid-19 pandemic last year contained red flag indicators of possible corruption, a report has concluded.
The campaign group Transparency International UK identified 73 “questionable contracts” worth more than £3.7bn (€4.3bn; $5.1bn) in total that warranted further investigation. Most of these (65), worth £2.9bn, were for personal protective equipment.
By value, the 73 contracts accounted for 20% of all reported contracting for the UK’s covid-19 response between February and the end of November 2020. All 73 should now be subject to “detailed audits by relevant authorities,” the report said.
The BBC—not exactly the most daring, Tory-critical outlet out there—published a timeline in April 2021 that detailed a number of the dodgy dealings that went on during the hectic months of the pandemic. You can see the full timeline by following the above link, but here is a representative cross-section of it:
A healthcare firm, which employs Conservative MP Owen Paterson as a paid consultant, won a £133m contract unopposed to produce Covid-19 testing kits, the Guardian reveals.
The Financial Times reports that the UK government handed contracts worth at least £1.7bn to private companies in the previous three months, mostly without a competitive tender process.
The BBC reveals that a Tory councillor received major PPE contracts to supply face shields worth £120m in total.
The Sunday Times goes on to report in November that the same man, then a former Tory councillor, was awarded a further £156m to provide gowns and masks and bought a £1.5m Cotswold mansion with the proceeds.
The Times says a report revealed that ministers set up a VIP fast-track channel to buy billions of pounds of PPE from companies who had political contacts with the government and MPs.
Why was the Tory’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic so awful? Part of the reason might well be the simple fact that they were too busy stealing as much as they could get their hands on to focus on public health. I’ve personally never done it myself, but transferring billions of pounds sounds like it could be a tiring job. Who has time for trivial distractions like preventing tens of thousands of deaths when there’s another kind of killing to be made? To cloud the issue, at every step of the way the government has sought to blame the public for the disastrous pandemic figures. Amidst some of the most dreadful messaging in recent history, the Tories—and their compliant stenographers in the press—consistently shifted the blame onto individuals. The government got away with mass murder and had the audacity to point the finger at those who lay dead by their hand.
What is yet to come.
The United Kingdom’s response to Covid-19 serves as a neat and emblematic case study of the world’s response. Looking at it is like gazing into the Mirror of Galadriel—our future, should we not enact swift, dramatic change, is revealed. The Covid-19 pandemic may well have been one of the most catastrophic events to hit the globe for a long time. Yet it pales in comparison to the rolling, ceaseless series of cataclysms that are coming our way as a result of capitalist climate change. Lest we forget: Those cataclysms are already here. In the global South, they have been here for quite some time. On our present course, they are only going to get worse. It’s no hyperbole to say that on the current track civilization as we know it is heading towards collapse.
Covid-19 could have been a perfect test run of sorts. A chance for the world to come together and to dramatically re-jig its priorities away from profits and endless growth, and to turn away from the exploitation of the poor by the rich. We could have pioneered new ways of working, new systems of cooperation. We could have rejected the individualistic dogma of neoliberalism and moved towards the communitarian way of being that will be essential to our survival on this planet.
What did we do instead?
Over the last 16 months, since the formal beginning of the pandemic lockdown, the combined wealth of 713 U.S. billionaires has surged by $1.8 trillion, a gain of almost 60 percent. The total combined wealth of U.S. billionaires increased from $2.9 trillion on March 18, 2020 to $4.7 trillion on July 9, 2021.
Billionaire wealth has steadily increased since 1990, but one-third of their wealth gains have occurred during the pandemic. U.S. Billionaire wealth increased 19-fold over the last 31 years, from an inflation adjusted $240 billion in 1990 to $4.7 trillion in 2021.
We let Big Pharma charge extortionate amounts for a life-saving vaccine so that its stock price could soar. We watched the pandemic approach from a distance and we let it sweep over the most vulnerable. We blocked the waiving of patent rights that would have otherwise saved millions of lives in the global South. We hoarded vaccines and then graciously offered to give a tiny proportion of those to countries we have exploited for centuries.
The kicker here is of course that ‘we’ doesn’t really mean ‘we’. It refers to the systems that govern us. If we don’t overturn those and change things as soon as humanly possible, then the same impulses that caused such destruction during Covid-19 will prevail in the years and decades to come, and the damage then will be like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
Image sources (in order of posting): Gav Goulder/In Pictures via Getty Images, Daniel Leal-Olivas-WPA Pool/Getty Images, Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images