On May 21, the Italian Minister of health Roberto Speranza will open the Global Health Summit in Rome. The event is co-organized by the European Commission and the G20, of which Italy holds the presidency this year. In response to the event, social movements in Italy have called for mobilizations on May 21 and 22. Power to the People (Potere al Popolo in Italian) has called for a national demonstration in the Italian capital.
Giuliano Granato, the newly elected national spokesman of the leftist organization explained the reasons for the mobilization: “We already know what will be said in those G20 meetings: lots of empty phrases about the need to speed up the vaccination campaign, some funding for the Covax program which redistributes a very meagre amount of vaccines – essentially leftovers – to the Global South, but nothing concrete will be done to address the real issue: the insufficient production of vaccines.”
The reason for this shortage is widely known: in order to ensure extremely high profit margins, multinational drug companies maintain patents on vaccines, guaranteeing themselves a monopoly and excluding laboratories in most of the world from production. It is appalling that in the midst of a pandemic, vaccines and drugs produced through public research and paid for with taxes are restricted by private patents.
World public opinion is in favor of making patents public domain. India and South Africa have tabled a motion to the World Trade Organization, supported by more than 100 states, to suspend patent legislation. The Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has also expressed his support, as have over 100 Nobel Prize winners and 70 former heads of state. In Italy, the petition calling for the release of vaccine patents has almost reached the minimum threshold of 50,000 signatures.
A few days ago, the administration of US president Joe Biden announced they would support negotiations to waive, at least temporarily, patents on vaccines. Giuliano Granato explained: “The Biden administration’s decision to support the suspension of vaccine patents is historic. And it is certainly positive for the lives of millions and millions of men and women living on our planet. If this US proposal has become possible today, it is because we are living in exceptional times and because social movements have embraced globally the battle for the suspension of vaccines. After this announcements, we need action.”
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, just hours after the US proposal declared that the EU is “ready to discuss it”. For the heads of state, the interest of a few large multinational drug companies remains priority over the global public interest of controlling the pandemic as fast as possible. This position is all the more odious considering that in the face of almost 3 million deaths, Big Pharma expects 35 billion in extra profits by 2021. Meanwhile, according to World Bank estimates, in 2020 alone, 100 million more people fell below the extreme poverty line (less than 1.9 dollars a day), pushing numbers up to between 9.1% and 9.4% of the global population.
The ideological stance of Western neoliberal governments not only risks condemning the poorest countries to wait years before they can be vaccinated, but will also pose a danger to Western populations themselves. No one can assure that current vaccines will be effective against the development of new variants. Giuliano Granato says: “If we do not intervene immediately by increasing production capacity, the risk is that we will be invaded by new waves of coronavirus resistant to current remedies.”
This situation shows how, in the medium term, there is a need to radically change the direction of health policy. The virus has already brought the Western private-sector models into question, as these models, based on maximizing profits from treatment, have shown themselves completely ineffective at prevention of disease. As the small nation of Cuba shows, even a country with few economic resources, based on a health and research model that is entirely public and aimed at intervention at the community level, has been able to defend itself effectively against the virus and send specialized medical brigades to even the richest countries.
The resources to build an effective healthcare model exist, but they are accumulated in the assets of the world’s rich, from the shareholders of multinationals to that minority of billionaires and millionaires who have seen their overall wealth increase in recent years. In December 2020, the wealth of the world’s billionaires had reached an all-time high of USD 11,950 billion, exactly equivalent to the amount allocated by all the G20 countries to respond to the coronavirus, according to Oxfam data.
Granato added: “Faced with a system that is as unfair as it is threatening to our very survival, we must reverse course, starting with making patents on vaccines fully public. While the world’s powerful parade in Rome for the G20, we must unite to ensure that our interests are heard. Our own lives are at stake. We call on all political and social organizations that identify with the campaign against patenting to plan on-the-ground action for Friday May 21, and to attend a planned in-person demonstration on May 22 in Rome.”
The social and political organizations signing the call to mobilizations on May 21 and 22 are claiming three essential demands:
- A large-scale public production of the vaccine under workers’ control and the end of privatization of patents; a public production of COVID-tests and mass screening, starting with the most vulnerable and with the greatest risk of exposure, to ensure that COVID restrictions can be lifted safely.
- A health system that is once again entirely public, based on prevention and community intervention. Against the privatization of healthcare, which has proved ineffective in protecting public health.
- A radical redistribution of wealth through taxation of the rich and especially the super-rich, which will allow for the introduction of a single emergency income that will protect from the economic effects of the pandemic, as well as through a general increase in wage levels. Against those who want to shift the cost of this pandemic onto working men and women.