Lessons of the Pandemic for Our Collective Humanity

Lessons of the Pandemic for Our Collective Humanity

Monday, May 10, 2021 3:42 pm

Femi Falana


Coronavirus, Humanity, Femi Falana,

By Femi Falana


The most telling lesson of the coronavirus pandemic is that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” It is an indisputable proof of our biological connectedness which is even more consequential for life and livelihood than the digital connectivity that is the buzz word of the millennials.

As it happens in any pandemic, the coronavirus does not respect geo-political boundaries; neither is it restricted by socio-economic and cultural divides. The virus infects the poor and the rich alike. It overwhelms developed countries and underdeveloped countries despite the sophistication of the healthcare system of the industrialised countries. Yet humanitarian disasters loom in some parts of the world because this obvious lesson seems to be currently lost on mankind.

Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me illustrate this point with the politics and economics of vaccines being played out before our very eyes around the globe. About this time last year, no fewer than 140 world leaders and experts issued an unprecedented joint statement calling for equity and humaneness in the distribution of the vaccines meant to stop the spread of the coronavirus. It was indeed a battle cry for “people’s vaccines.” The essence of the call was to ensure a global arrangement to guarantee the provision of COVID-19 diagnostics, tests, vaccines and treatments to everyone on earth.

Among the signatories to the statement were President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of Ghana, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Chair of the African Union, the President of the Republic of Senegal, Macky Sall, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan. Notable economists including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and public health experts join the political leaders in signing the statement. Their motivation was obvious: the pandemic is a tragic reminder of our shared humanity which some members of the global elites and establishments seem to have forgotten. They are immersed in their myopic and selfish pursuit of polices defined by unbridled competition instead of cooperation and isolationism rather than multilateralism. The world leaders and experts argued as follows:

“It is time for Health Ministers to renew the commitments made at the founding of the World Health Organization, where all states agreed to deliver the ‘the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being.

Now is not the time to allow the interests of the wealthiest corporations and governments to be placed before the universal need to save lives, or to leave this massive and moral task to market forces. Access to vaccines and treatments as global public goods are in the interests of all humanity. We cannot afford for monopolies, crude competition and near-sighted nationalism to stand in the way.”

It is also worth noting that President Ramaphosa in a separate statement added an African note to the clamour for the equitable distribution of vaccines:

“Billions of people today await a vaccine that is our best hope of ending this pandemic. As the countries of Africa, we are resolute that the COVID-19 vaccine must be patent-free, rapidly made and distributed, and free for all. All the science must be shared between governments. Nobody should be pushed to the back of the vaccine queue because of where they live or what they earn.”

Since the May 14, 2020 statement, the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic has shifted from China to Europe, the Americas and now back to Asia, in India, where more than 230,000 persons have died. More than 5,000 human beings die daily in India! Watching the grim footages on television today of the havoc being wreaked by coronavirus in places as diverse on the planet as India, Brazil and Turkey you would not believe that that statement was ever made in the sober moment of May 2020 when the whole world was on a virtual lockdown.

The sad story is that of the resurgence of vaccine nationalism with all its perils for our shared humanity. The current battle is not only against coronavirus; it is also a war against vaccine inequality. The trend is a portrayal of the huge deficits in the global consciousness about our collective humanity. Intriguingly, these deficits are not on the part of the poor people who continue to exude immense humanity despite their sordid conditions. The deficits are noticeable more on the part of the selfish poltical and economic elites who make decisions in the rich countries.

Some countries are stocking vaccines more than their urgent needs while some countries lack vaccines to save the extremely needy sections of their populations. In Nigeria, a country with a population of more 200 million people, only about a million persons have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, it was reported at the weekend that the highly virulent South African variant of coronavirus has been found in Ghana and Togo. The proximity of the variant to Nigeria suggests a greater need for vaccination with the population. This should be treated as a matter of emergency because of the porous borders. Corruption has rendered the surveillance at the airports ineffective.

The story is more pathetic in some African countries such as Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Men and women of good conscience should join in the campaign against vaccine inequality because of its destructive implication for mankind. The reputable British News Agency, Reuters, made a review of about a dozen contracts involving major suppliers of vaccines in the United States. The revelations put into serious question the consciousness about our collective humanity.

The richest and most powerful nation on earth has been stockpiling finished vaccines as well as the ingredients and equipment desperately needed by other countries such as India, Brazil and Turkey to manufacture vaccines. Employing selfish policy instruments, the U.S. only grants access to American manufacturers to make the jabs. Less developed countries in dire need of vaccines have been pushed into looking for alternatives. As a matter of fact, this trend began during the tenure of President Donald Trump who would rather lure vaccine manufacturers into the United States from other countries instead of establishing supply chains with those countries.

There is a global debate about the patent for COVID-19 vaccines. Some countries being ravaged by the pandemic are requesting the richer countries to grant them waivers on the patent for the existing vaccines. They need the waivers on intellectual property so that enough could be produced to check the explosion of infections in those countries. Although President Joe Biden of the United States expressed support for the waiving of patent for COVID-19 vaccines only last Wednesday, the problem could still persist without addressing the hidden question of the universal access to the ingredients and equipment for making vaccines.

The United States controls the supply of those items such as tubing, special disposable bags and filters. If the World Trade Organisation (WTO) accepts the waiver on patents, the gate may be opened for a faster production of vaccines to reduce significantly the number of infections. But the access to the ingredients would still be a hurdle to scale by manufacturers in other countries. Surprisingly, the United States is invoking a law made during the Korean War of the early 1950s to justify this vaccine inequity. The law is called the Defence Production Act (DPA). Agencies of the federal government are empowered by the law to decide the priority of items related to national defence. Like defence items, America is restricting ingredients for making vaccines.

So the most powerful nation on earth is treating the fight against COVID-19 as a geo-political war by this application of the 70-year old law to restrict the democratisation of the distribution of vaccines. A false equivalence is being drawn between military supplies and materials needed to make vaccines! Trump invoked the same law to give American manufacturers priority over those in other countries. The same Trump took his isolationism to the outrageous level when the United States stopped funding the World Health Organisation (WHO) amid the pandemic last year.

Meanwhile, Americans have access to full doses of the vaccines while the country’s pharmaceutical companies are making a lot of money in the process. It took weeks of appeals before the Biden administration granted waivers to the Indian vaccines manufacturers, the Serum Institute of India (SII), to import filters needed for making vaccines. The net result is that more than 45% of the American population has been vaccinated while less than 1% of the population of Guatemala, Thailand or Nigeria has received the jabs.

The foregoing is the ugly picture of vaccine inequality. Mr. Chairman, ladies and Gentleman, talking about the political economy of COVID-19 in relation to a sense of our common humanity, let us contrast the role of Cuba in the crisis with those of the western capitalist countries. Whereas the United States and some other capitalist countries have been largely selfish in the approach to the pandemic, Cuba has heroically demonstrated humanism. At the height of the lockdowns last year, some British voyagers infected with coronavirus were stranded in a ship. No western ally of the United Kingdom allowed the ship to berth because of the travel bans imposed by countries around the world. Europe was then the epicentre of the virus infections. It was only Cuba that welcomed the infected passengers and ensure that they returned to the UK. It was another teachable moment for the whole world. In a highly compassionate tone, the Cuban foreign ministry put the matter like this: “Given the urgency of the situation and the risk to the lives of sick people, the Cuban government has decided to allow the docking of this ship. “The passengers will be repatriated by air to the UK and their home countries… These are times of solidarity, of understanding health as a human right, of reinforcing international cooperation to face our common challenges, values that are inherent in the humanistic practice of the Revolution and of our people…”

That was a practical demonstration of our shared humanity! The significance of the Cuban gesture even becomes more conspicuous when you remember that in the course of the 60-year old callous economic blockade that the United States has imposed on the Cuban people, the UK and other western capitalist have never risen even in moral defence of Cuba or shown any compassion. At the request of the Italian government, Cuba doctors armed with their drug, interferon, were in Italy when that country’s healthcare system was overwhelmed by coronavirus infections last year. Cuba doctors were on ground also in other countries in different continents of this world to battle coronavirus.

The reputation of the Cuban social medicine is legendary. The conscious investment in its healthcare system as a social good has paid off for the tiny Caribbean country. The investment is so huge in public health and primary healthcare that no one is left behind. It is an exemplary policy of social inclusion. The result: lifespan in Cuba is higher than that of any of the U.S. and all the other members of the G7. Apart from India, Cuba is the only country that’s not a member of the G7 but is actively involved in production of vaccines. Cuba already has five candidate vaccines. The heroism of the Cuban nation in this crisis is firmly hinged on the assertion of our common humanity in words and action.

Now, Mr. Chairman, I like to draw a particular attention to the philosophical underpinnings of the difference in the response of socialist Cuba and western capitalist countries. Internal and foreign policies of Cuba are determined by an ideology that makes man the object and subject of development. And one other lesson of this pandemic is that issues of healthcare cannot be inclusively resolved by market forces. The excluded members of the society in healthcare provision are more vulnerable during this pandemic in advanced capitalist societies.

The present situation in which some national policies are informed by low humanity is not due to lack of efforts by multilateral institutions. For instance, about a year ago, the WHO created the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool for sharing of intellectual property, information and the technology needed to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines. Surprisingly, nothing has been put into the pool despite the fact that the Director-General of the WTO, our own Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has called on vaccine makers to share their technology knowhow with others.

Those hoarding vaccines as if they are oblivious of a common humanity should be reminded of history. To make penicillin available during World War II, the British government waived the intellectual property on the anti-biotic needed to treat wounds during war. The anti-biotic was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, but it was not until 1941 that some Oxford University researchers demonstrated its anti-bacterial effectiveness. Rather than make a fetish of intellectual property, the Oxford researchers went to the United States to share their knowledge and American manufacturers began to make about 100 billion units of penicillin in a month. The same knowledge was shared with India with the support of WHO and UNICEF. India became a big manufacturer of penicillin. The principle then was exchange of knowledge because untreated wounds constituted a global health problem. That same principle could still be applied to as mankind battles this pandemic.

One thing is crystal clear from the global debate on the central factor of intellectual property in the production of coronavirus vaccine: the capitalist logic rules the policies of the advanced countries. The priority of the big pharmaceutical companies is profit and not saving humanity from the pandemic. Western governments are giving a political and ideological stamp to this approach to the problem. But the approach to a global public health emergency is not only selfish, it is also scientifically myopic. As long as the virus exists in any country, it could spread to other countries. One other lesson of the pandemic is that public healthcare system cannot be developed by applying the logic of market forces. Public health services should be treated as social goods because a pandemic is a challenge to the common good. The implication is that government should invest more in public health.

Nigeria, for instance, devotes less than 5% of its budget to healthcare. Little surprise that the response of Nigeria to the pandemic has been extremely weakened by the manifestation of poverty in the healthcare system. Most of the states are yet to comply with the law on universal healthcare coverage. Health insurance still remains essentially an idea whose time is yet to come in Nigeria. In fact, the chairman of the presidential steering committee on COVID-19 and secretary to the government of the federation, Mr. Boss Mustapha, said last year that he never knew that the condition of healthcare system was so derelict until he was given the assignment. Health is still not yet a budgetary priority in Nigeria. In a culture that is bereft of humanism, members of the political and economic elite are content with the situation in which they pay exorbitant fees in private hospitals at home and abroad. Here we are talking of less than 1% of the population. Policy makers are not losing their sleep because the 99% cannot afford quality healthcare.

It is, therefore, shocking that with all the billons garnered by the private sector Coalition Against COVID (CACOVID) last year, the federal and state governments are yet to report noticeable improvements in healthcare infrastructure. Not enough molecular laboratories have been built. Ventilators are not in adequate supply in hospitals and isolation centres. Even with all the warnings that the pitiable situations in India, Brazil and Turkey are presenting to the world, Nigeria is not getting prepared for the possibility of another virulent wave with massive production of medical oxygen and other essential materials to save lives.

In this respect, Mr. Chairman, I like to call on African governments not to wait naively and irresponsibly on those who may not have compassion on the poor African countries. They should fund the health sector as a public good. For instance, Nigeria was producing vaccines in the 1980s. How come we are not talking of Nigeria’s own vaccines against coronavirus in 2021? The challenge of the hoarding of vaccines by the developed countries is that Africa should begin to prepare for future pandemics by producing its own vaccines.

Meanwhile, the little quantity of vaccines available in Nigeria came from India through the facility of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX). Now, India itself has now run of stock of vaccines for its population being ravaged by coronavirus. So the vaccine situation for Nigeria like other third world countries is precarious. This is despite the great efforts of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI) which has been nudging the American government to remove the restriction to the production of vaccines by manufacturers located in other parts of the world. The alliance comprises governments, international organisations, drug companies and non-governmental organisations.

In sum, the response to the crisis should, therefore, be based on the principles of compassion, cooperation and multilateralism. In fact, apart from the pandemic other global issues such as climate change, social inequality, drugs and identity crisis require cooperation and multilateral approaches because they constitute dangers to our common humanity. Those who for profit motives, power and other considerations ignore these issues of common humanity while pursuing recklessly selfish private interests are really short-sighted. They are like fleas; the parasites inflict so much pains on their dog host forgetting that the death of the host would be their own end too.

Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, I like to end this keynote address on a little optimistic note. Humanism can find expression at the global level. It can also manifest at the national level. Contrary to the cynical viewpoint of bourgeois theorists, humanism could be expressed in moments of crisis as it happened last year in Nigeria. The coronavirus unmasked the grave inequality in the Nigerian society during the lockdown imposed to cut the chains of the virus. Most of those working depended on daily incomes. Millions of others are jobless. The pressure was such that some starved members of the society hid behind the placards of the legitimate #EndSARS protests to loot warehouses full of foodstuffs. The good news was that food items were provided by a coalition of private businessmen for the benefit of the most vulnerable people.

Another piece of good news is that people living in middle class and upper middle class estates supplied their poor neighbours in slums with food. Many individuals also quietly assisted others with provisions and money during the lockdown. No, all these kind gestures did not address the systemic question of the poverty of the majority. However, they pointed to the realisation of our common humanity. The trend provides a basis for hope as we ponder the future of mankind.

(Being a Keynote Address delivered by Femi Falana SAN at the International Conference Humanism in the Era of Pandemic at Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Imo State on Monday, May 10, 2021)

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