The TRIPS waiver proposal is a workplace issue

Trade unions and health workers are increasing their pressure to make the small group of rich countries blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal back off

December 03, 2021 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Health workers and activists at #TRIPSWaiverNow protest in NYC, 30 November 2021 (Source: Twitter, Global Trade Watch)

Global Nurses United (GNU), a coalition of nurses’ associations from 28 countries, and the Progressive International (PI), have recently submitted an appeal to Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN’s Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health, asking her to intervene on behalf of the people of the world, against the harmful actions taken by governments of rich countries and pharmaceutical companies during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their appeal means that, up to date, more than 200 million workers in the world have expressed their support for the TRIPS waiver proposal submitted by South Africa and India to the World Trade Organization (WTO) last year.


Approximately 115,000 health workers have died of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. At least part of the deaths could have been prevented by ensuring timely access to vaccines for all, but the hoarding of doses by rich countries has led us to a situation where many health workers in the Global South are yet to receive a first dose. The nurses warned, “The artificial scarcity of vaccines means that only 2 in 5 health and care workers are fully vaccinated on average, but the numbers are catastrophic in many parts of the world—less than one in 10 healthcare workers are fully vaccinated in the African and Western Pacific regions.”

A more equitable distribution of vaccines would be achieved if the TRIPS waiver proposal was passed. The proposal would suspend the intellectual property rights that Big Pharma companies currently have on Covid-19 medical products: by doing so, it would facilitate production in the Global South and cut the engorged prices that pharmaceutical producers are charging for their vaccines, and prevent similar inequity issues when it comes to Covid-19 diagnostics and treatments.

Although the proposal is one of the most concrete answers to the pandemic we have at the moment, a group of rich countries including the European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore, continue to block it at WTO discussions, siding with Big Pharma interests. Jibin TC, president of the United Nurses Association (India), said that “It is appalling that some of the richest countries in the world are blocking a waiver that could break the lock on vaccine recipes. We have the power to end the pandemic, and they are artificially prolonging it.”

A crime against humanity

A recent BMJ piece speculated that the behavior of Big Pharma during the Covid-19 pandemic could be considered a crime against humanity – and since rich countries are siding with them, we should hold them complicit. This pretty much corresponds with GNU’s and PI’s take on the matter, as they have explicitly asked the Special Rapporteur “to challenge the crimes of the governments of some of the world’s richest countries.”

Shirley Marshal Díaz Morales, President of the Federação Nacional dos Enfermeiros (Brazil), said, “Nurses around the world have cared for patients throughout this pandemic and have seen unbelievable suffering and death, and so many nurses themselves have gotten ill and paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is disgraceful that almost half the world’s population still does not have access to the Covid-19 vaccine. As long as this situation persists, none of us is safe.”

Her statement rings particularly true in the context of the recent discovery of the Omicron variant, whose appearance scientists and activists alike have linked to vaccine apartheid. And it is not only health workers who believe that the TRIPS waiver is the best solution we got for the current situation: the Council of Global Unions (CGU) has warned governments of rich countries that their actions are having dire consequences on the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.


“The essential right to a safe workplace is only possible with access to vaccination, regardless of where one lives. Failure to ensure global equity in access to vaccines and treatments is an existential threat to workers’ safety, and negatively impacts human rights”, said CGU in their statement. If governments in the Global North don’t care for the lives of millions of people in the South, the trade unionists said, they should at least care about their own economies, which will surely break into pieces if the pandemic continues for much longer.

The key point, however, remains the moral imperative facing the governments of the countries blocking the waiver proposal. As workers around the world continue to shoulder most of the burden of the pandemic, putting their lives at risk, it is incomprehensible that governments and a handful of private companies are still choosing financial profit over workers’ health.

According to the nurses, this indicates that “a new international health order is needed to overcome the vaccine inequity which threatens our very survival … to collective benefit, based on the principles of sovereignty, solidarity, and the universal right to life.”

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