People’s movements, trade unions, and left parties join hands demanding TRIPS waiver on COVID-19 medical products

After the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference was called off following the discovery of the Omicron variant, trade unions, civil society organizations and parties on the left ramped up actions in favor of a TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 medical products

December 01, 2021 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Protests in support of the TRIPS waiver in Geneva.

Trade unions, progressive parties, and civil society groups met in Geneva on the morning of November 30 to show their support for the TRIPS waiver proposal for COVID-19 medical products, which was submitted to the WTO last year by the governments of South Africa and India.

The activists planned to organize around the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), which was supposed to take place from November 30 to December 3. While MC12 was called off after several European countries started imposing travel bans because of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, civil society opted to go forward with their plans, showing a strong commitment to making vaccines and other medical products accessible to everyone.

Vaccine apartheid – leading cause of new variants

The day of action began with a joint press conference by the organizations present in Geneva and those who were forced to remain at home because of the travel ban, and continued through a series of actions that culminated in a series of decentralized protests in different countries.

Speaking about the connection between the travel ban and vaccine apartheid, Fatima Hassan from Health Justice International said, “It only took hours for rich countries to impose a travel ban on several places in Africa. It is taking them more than a year to support the TRIPS waiver proposal, a proposal that would allow us to ramp up vaccine production and make COVID-19 vaccines accessible to all those who need them.”

The coordinators of the day of action recognized the appearance of Omicron as a direct consequence of rich countries’ avoidance of support to the waiver. Speaking for the network Our World Is Not For Sale, Deborah James warned that it is the current situation of vaccine apartheid that is facilitating the development of new variants, and that “WTO should not be the one to determine our ability to make vaccines accessible to everyone.”

The European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland continue to oppose the TRIPS waiver, but they are now facing growing resistance both internationally and at home, according to Marc Botenga from the Left in the European Parliament and Stefanie Prezioso from the Swiss left party Ensemble à gauche (Eng. Together on the Left). According to Botenga, the people managed to pressure the European Parliament to vote in favor of the waiver, proving that power relations can be shifted if we fight together.

Prezioso pointed out that the current state of affairs could not go on for much longer, and that it is time for rich countries to take on responsibility for a quick resolution of the pandemic.


Workers support the waiver

Roman Vega, the new Global Coordinator of the People’s Health Movement (PHM), warned that many are dying all around the world, because of the pandemic response that was adopted in the Global North. While we definitely need a TRIPS waiver to put a stop to this, we must not forget the other elements of health systems that will bring us closer to the end of COVID-19. “We must continue to fight together for public and universal health systems, and stand up to the whole system that brought us privatization of healthcare and Big Pharma impunity”, said Vega.

The support for the waiver has only strengthened among workers over the past months, said trade unionists Baba Aye (Public Services International) and Robert Johnston (International Transport Federation). As of today, more than 200 million workers across all sectors stand behind the TRIPS waiver proposal, asking governments to stand in solidarity with those in the frontlines of pandemic work.

“This is not the time for travel bans; it is the time to march in the streets and make sure everyone has the access to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics”, said Frank Prouhet from the collective Stop patents on COVID-19, before the activists moved on to protest actions in front of the UN headquarters and those of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.


Alternatives to Big Pharma dominance

“It is easy to be disheartened by the current state of affairs, but we must remember that alternatives to what we are experiencing from European governments already exist in practice”, said Franco Cavalli from MediCuba and Forum Alternativo. “From the very beginning of the pandemic, Cuba has shown us that an approach based on sharing knowledge, technology, and vaccines is possible – and that brings true hope for the Global South,” he stressed.

It is this alternative vision of a world based on care and solidarity that brought people in Indonesia, France, Belgium, Norway, the UK, Ireland, the United States, Switzerland, and many other places on the streets on this occasion. In Brussels, protesters held a vigil for all the people who lost their lives because of vaccine apartheid, joined by the European Citizens’ Initiative Right to Cure. In other places, people gathered in front of government offices and Big Pharma headquarters, explaining to passers-by how existing trade regulations were prolonging the pandemic.

The central event took place in Geneva, where approximately 200 people marched and called for rich countries to finally suspend patents on COVID-19 medical products. For them, the time has come for rich countries to live up to the promises of global solidarity they gave at the beginning of the pandemic.

As Sangeeta Shashikant from Third World Network put it: “It’s (COVID-19) the worst crisis since the global financial crisis, and the longer the pandemic continues, the suffering will continue. When the pandemic emerged, there were promises of global solidarity. But what we have seen is global obstruction by rich countries, which have vaccinated the majority of their populations. We need a meaningful outcome so that we can scale up production of vaccines, tests, treatments, and medical products, and the only way to do so is to waive patents, trade secrets, copyright, and industrial designs for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19.”

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