Health workers will not stop fighting for a better alternative to WTO COVID-19 response

George Poe Williams from the National Health Workers Union of Liberia comments on the recent outcome of the WTO Ministerial Conference and the disappointment this has caused among health workers

June 23, 2022 by Peoples Health Dispatch
George Poe Williams. 

The 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) recently adopted a set of documents on the organization’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ministerial decision came after almost two years of discussions on the TRIPS waiver proposal tabled by South Africa and India. Yet, health and trade activists warned that the WTO’s COVID-19 decision couldn’t be further away from the original proposal, as it does nothing to lift intellectual property privileges from medical products necessary to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, limiting itself to lessen some of the export limitations that apply to COVID-19 vaccines through the TRIPS agreement.

The underwhelming outcome of the Ministerial Conference will mean that the Global South will continue to face obstacles in access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and medicines, while the profit of pharmaceutical companies located in the Global North will remain shielded. This brings a dire perspective for millions of people around the world who have continued to confront the virus as high-income countries began to act as the pandemic was over. Lack of access to COVID-19 medical products will continue to weigh on health and other essential workers in particular. Because of this, trade unions have been among the loudest critics of the recent Ministerial Conference outcome, calling for further action and pressure on governments to ensure vaccines, medicines, and tests for COVID-19 are available to everyone.

Some of the most notable recent actions by trade unionists include a one-man protest in Davos, where George Poe Williams from the National Health Workers Union of Liberia (NAHWUL) clapped for the profit that pharmaceutical CEOs turned during the pandemic – just like governments around the world clapped for health and care workers, while failing to provide them adequate protection through personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines, and other COVID-19 products. 

People’s Health Dispatch met with George Poe Williams to discuss how health workers would continue to push for a fair and equitable pandemic response.

People’s Health Dispatch (PHD): The WTO Ministerial Conference concluded after days of quite chaotic proceedings. Throughout the conference, we heard of members from the Global South not being able to participate in the consultations, and of course we heard of civil society being completely sidelined by the organizers. What is your take on the whole meeting?

George Poe Williams (GPW): First and foremost, I must express my disappointment at what came out of the Ministerial. It has been more than four decades that we recognized the people’s right to participate in decision-making that deals with their health. It’s the people’s right to do that, and people should be involved in the negotiations that deal with access to treatment, or any other kind of medical product that helps safeguard and improve health. So it was a disappointment that the Ministerial Conference discussed issues surrounding the health crisis, and yet they excluded civil society organizations at that global level. That’s my first disappointment. I hope the world will look at this. The exclusion of civil society from a discussion  on COVID-19 products is completely unacceptable – it should never, ever, be the case again that an international organization is discussing something so important for people’s health, yet excludes the people themselves from the discussion. 

We didn’t witness such an exclusion at just the Ministerial Conference. It was there at many other meetings too. I went to every forum, including Davos, where they didn’t let me in presumably because I don’t fit the profile of their classic stakeholder. It’s very frustrating. And it’s also disappointing, because these kinds of exclusions are taking place even in countries which usually have a much better tolerance for civil society participation, like Switzerland. There’s a pressing need for them to rethink what’s been happening and make it right.

PHD: There is a whole additional set of problems related to the content of the outcomes, which have completely missed the mark when we consider what many countries from the Global South and civil society were hoping for. How do you see the WTO’s COVID-19 documents?

GPW: Of course, the outcome of the conference is a disappointment in itself, especially since we know that 6.2 million people have already died of COVID-19, and we know that COVID-19 is still here, coming in new and different strains. People should not cheer for what came out of the WTO meeting, because it is not going to solve the problem at hand right now. 

I had hoped that after all that had happened during the pandemic, with politicians showing up in hospital wards both as guests and patients treated by health workers, with health workers being praised in the media, the trade leaders at the WTO would finally take a decision that is effective. We needed something that would make vaccines, medicines and tests available everywhere. I mean, approximately 90% of the funds for research and development of these medical products comes from public, government funding or philanthropies, but the industry used intellectual property privileges to limit access and increase profit. So many lives have been lost because of this. And for almost two years, South Africa and India requested a waiver on intellectual property privileges to change this.

To put an end to the pandemic, we need to use all the capacities we have around the world to produce and distribute vaccines, medicines, and other things. This would increase the speed at which the products are distributed all around the world. The TRIPS waiver would have helped us achieve that, and that’s why over 100 members of the WTO, as well as trade unions, civil society organizations and social movements all backed this proposal. So why are the few elements remaining allowed to keep us hostage? 

I’m wondering this as a nurse, as a health worker who has seen people die of COVID-19. Was 6.2 million lives lost not enough reason to make those world leaders reconsider the direction they have taken? How long, exactly, until life-saving supplies, medications, equipment and technology is available to everyone who needs it to save lives? I don’t know if politicians care any more that people are dying while others are making a profit. To change that, we needed the waiver, and not what the Ministerial Conference has given us.

It’s also important to point out that a true TRIPS waiver would not have helped us only in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been a breakthrough for future crises: it would have put down a roadmap we could follow, so next time we don’t have to spend two whole years on the same discussion again.

 George Poe Williams.

PHD: During the time leading up to the Ministerial meeting, you made a point of organizing actions and participating in discussions to make sure the voice of health workers is heard. Among other things, you ironically clapped for the pharmaceutical industry’s profits while their CEOs were sitting at Davos – and you were not allowed into the building, as you already mentioned. 

GPW: Yes, I found it to be very important that the voices of the health workers be heard, because we all remember how at the onset of COVID-19, everyone was hailing us for our resilience, for our bravery, for the tons of work we do. Our government officials and industry representatives saw how overcrowded the hospitals were. They saw how burned out health workers were, how we worked for days on end, not able to return to our homes and our loved ones. During that time, the great politicians visited the hospitals and the health workers. And in that moment, you would have thought that the world was changing and that health will now, finally, become a priority around the globe. But this didn’t happen. Now we see that governments in the Global North consider the danger from Covid-19 to be receding and all of a sudden the issues in the hospitals and the problems of health workers and patients don’t seem to matter any more.

But these problems are not gone! I’m not sure the politicians actually realized how stressful our work was during the pandemic, and I don’t think they understood how stressful it is even when there is no pandemic. When they started discussing what is needed for the pandemic response and how we can make that better, they should have included us in that discussion. They should have included us, and listened to us, as we said that everyone having access to vaccines, medicines and tests is crucial. Because we were the ones with the people on COVID-19 wards, we witnessed the effects of the pandemic first hand. More than 180,000 health workers died during this pandemic as they were caring for others. And now that the interest is passing, everything is coming back at us, the pressure, the ignoring of some of our basic needs in the workplace.

At the same time, governments are talking about including experts in the discussions surrounding pandemic response. Health workers are the experts they need! When we talk about the medical supplies we need to treat our patients, why aren’t they listening to what we have to say? We are the ones with the most direct experience of the pandemic. World leaders need to understand that the best way to move forward is to listen to what everyone has to say. And if they are looking for experts in the health sector, then health workers are the experts. No scientist will be able to sit and discuss, say, problems with workflow experienced by nurses, physicians and other health workers, the way we ourselves will be.

PHD: You also pointed out that the WTO’s documents will not address the problem we have at hand. We know that this is particularly true for some regions, like the African region, which has been completely left behind when access to COVID-19 vaccines is concerned. What is the current situation with COVID-19 in the region?

GPW: If you look at the data we have, it’s obvious that there’s still a huge level of scarcity of vaccines in Africa. And that’s not the only thing the numbers show, as statistics show that African countries have used between 65% and 70% of all the COVID-19 vaccine doses they had available, yet not more than 28% of the population has been vaccinated. In high-income countries it’s different, they have used around 60% of the doses they had, but they vaccinated up to 90% of their population. So what can we read from this situation? Obviously, that the high income countries had more vaccine doses than we had, and while we are struggling to get people vaccinated with at least one dose, people in Europe, in the United States and other countries in the Global North are getting their third or fourth booster dose right now. 

And I haven’t even mentioned access to medication or testing, mind you. People are not being treated for COVID-19 in Africa, although we know that there are medicines for COVID-19. That’s not even part of the conversation in this region because access is such a problem. Likewise, testing is a luxury. You can only be tested if you are critically ill or you have to travel. And if you have to travel, well then you’re upper class, aren’t you, because poor people don’t travel. In other words, poor people will never get tested in many countries in Africa. On the other hand, in most high income countries, you simply get a free test if you think you need one.

This is a great health divide we’re talking about, and it’s extremely disappointing. If health is truly a human right, if we are all equal, then everyone needs to be able to access vaccines, tests, and medicines when they need them. This is definitely not the case in Africa. For example, I was looking at some of the reports recently, and there’s a new surge of cases in Ghana. Ghana is pretty much the center of the region in West Africa, and only 31% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. It’s extremely worrying. It’s time for the so-called world leadership to stop playing politics and look into the issues as they are, because people are dying.

PHD: And the feeling that we got from the trade ministers in Geneva was that they considered the outcomes of the Ministerial meeting a great success, something that is going to help the world in the pandemic response.

GPW: Some of the ministers praised the progress that was made at the WTO meeting, but I think that they have not realized that as they were ensuring this so-called progress, as they left every single minute of that meeting pass, there was someone dying in the world because of the inaction we witnessed for two years. And I want them to know that this inaction, and the failure to step up during the Ministerial Conference, is the cause of these people’s deaths. They should know that they have blood on their hands for not making the right decision. People died because of the people at the WTO dragging their feet, and because the absence of a waiver meant that equipment was not available in places where it was needed, people were not tested, who should have been tested, and so on.

It should have been clear by now that COVID-19 is a global threat, and as such it requires a global response. But what we’re seeing is that, once high-income countries think they are doing well, they let go of everyone else, no one else matters for them. So I think there is a need for people to think beyond what they are thinking now. They need to think out of the box and see that global issues should be handled on a global level. And that means equal access to diagnostics, treatment, ventilators – all those things that help to save lives in the time of crisis.

PHD: Finally, the disappointment with the Ministerial Conference’s outcomes led to swift reaction by a number of trade unions, trade justice organizations, and movements. What is in the plan for the time in front of us?

GPW: I think civil society organizations are fighting a good fight, and what we have called for, we shouldn’t draw back upon. Going forward, I want to see us use the statistics as much as possible and show to people what’s going on. Let’s see how many people have died of COVID-19 since the Ministerial Conference made its decision. Let’s publish this number over and over again, let’s show them how many lives are lost after their “COVID-19 resolution” which was supposed to save lives. And then let them account for that, let them tell us how their decision has helped the global COVID-19 response, and how it is going to help us in the case of new pandemics.

This is the time to think about how the mechanisms we have in place will aid or hinder us in the future. How is the WTO going to address these future problems, if we know COVID-19 has been here for two years, and for two years, the WTO has not been able to come up with an adequate solution? The first thing the delegates from the ministerial meeting should know is that they did too little, too late, and the issues do not stop there. Their “progress” is insufficient and we will not stop fighting for a better solution because it is time to put people over profit.

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