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Chomsky on Cuba’s “Internationalist” Response to Pandemic & Need to Make Vaccine Globally Accessible

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As the world races to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, Noam Chomsky says any successful treatment must be accessible to everyone, and he warns that President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization will hamper the international body’s efforts to distribute medicine in countries racked by poverty and war. “There’s at least one country in the world that is showing genuine internationalism, providing medical aid and support for people that need it,” Chomsky says, and that is Cuba.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. It’s The Quarantine Report. We return now to the interview I did with Nermeen Shaikh with professor Noam Chomsky.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Chomsky, I’d like to ask about one of the immediate crises we’re facing, which you’ve just spoken about earlier, which is, of course, this pandemic. If you could say a little — I mean, now many scientists believe that a vaccine will be possible for this virus. Could you talk a little about what you hope will happen in terms of access to this vaccine?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, whether a vaccine will be available is an open question. There are some pretty favorable reports, but the development of safe vaccines is a pretty slow process. And rushing vaccines through has dangers associated with it. There may be unknown side effects, lots of problems that can be dealt with by slow development. But racing it through does raise these problems. Nevertheless, given the spread of the virus, it’s imperative to do whatever can be done.

Then comes your question: How is it distributed? Well, in the kind of society in which we live, it will be distributed pretty much the way the stimulus money is being distributed, or the way the bailout in 2008 was distributed. That was the Obama administration, not the administration of a psychopath. So, how was it done under Obama? Well, Congress passed legislation with two parts, to bail out the perpetrators of the crisis, the big banks, the ones who had played games with derivatives and so on — “Let’s bail them out” — and the other part was to provide support for the victims, the people who lost their homes under foreclosure — “Well, let’s do something for them.” Half the program was enacted: the first part. The inspector general for the Treasury Department, Neil Barofsky, was so outraged, he was writing articles. He even wrote a book about the scandal. That was the good guys, the Obama administration.

Now we’re talking about the bad guys, the Trump administration, off the spectrum. That’s what’s been happening with the stimulus funds. One of the major funds, about 80% of it went to people who earn over a million dollars a year. You just gave the figures before about the cornucopia that’s flowing to the super rich — Bezos, others. Well, that will be the way the vaccine is distributed, too, if we retain our current social order.

We don’t have to do that. Maybe Trump was sent by God to Earth, but the system that we live in wasn’t. It’s humanly designed and can be changed, can readily be changed. The coming election could lead to a change, if there’s real dedication to getting rid of the malignancy in the White House that’s destroying us, and changing the former political party, still called a political party, that backs it, the radical insurgency. If that can be tamed and returned to something like it was, we can get a stable government, run by people who care somewhat about the population.

And if popular activism continues, which has made a big impact, it’s worth — the Sanders campaign was a remarkable success. Sanders joined the planning of the Biden campaign. It’s had a big impact on the program. It’s the most progressive program of any candidate in recent history, maybe as far back as Roosevelt. The climate change program is not what I would like, not what you would like, but it’s better than anything that’s been proposed by anyone. It was partially written by the activists of Sunrise Movement. The leadership of the movement strongly endorses it.

If popular activism continues, it can ensure, or at least make it highly probable, that these programs will be enacted and improved. That’s the key. That’s real politics: keep the pressure on daily, not just push a lever every four years. That’s what has effect. If that can continue, we can escape from this crisis. There are ways to deal with the environmental crisis. There are ways to deal with a pandemic. Of course, nuclear war, yes, there are ways to deal with it. They’re not insoluble. But you have to grasp the opportunity.

Now, as far as distributing the vaccine is concerned, we’re going to be facing real problems. One is the radical inequality in the society, which is going to push the more wealthy and privileged to the front. That has to be stopped. The vaccine should go to those who need it, who are mostly the poor and vulnerable. They’re the ones who are suffering most. They should be up front. People in impossible — like the concentration camps not far from where I live, on the southern border with Mexico, the pandemic is raging there — prisons, raging. All of these have to be dealt with.

We’re going to face another problem. The anti-science thrust of this administration has accelerated a tendency in the country to be opposed to science. It’s very strong. There’s a strong anti-vaccination movement, which says, “We can’t take vaccines. They’re too dangerous.” You’ve probably seen a story circulating that the pandemic was created by Bill Gates and George Soros to try to control the world population. It’s very widespread. A recent investigation by Pew Research Center found that among Republicans, of those who are familiar with the story, which is a great many, that almost 60% believe it. I mean, these are people who listen to Rush Limbaugh, who tells his 30 million people in the audience — this is Trump’s favorite news man, just got the Medal of Freedom — he tells his audience there are four corners of deceit: government, media, academia and science. They thrive on deceit. OK?

Tens of millions of people hear that kind of thing. They see what you described in the White House with the scientists pushed to the side. “We don’t want science.” OK, they believe it. Not surprising. That’s what people are inundated with. And coming back to the distribution of the virus, they may refuse to take the vaccine. A person who refuses to take the vaccine is not just harming him or herself. It’s like a person who says, “I’ve got an assault rifle. I want to run around the streets shooting it at random.” That’s what it means not to wear a mask or not to take the vaccine.

AMY GOODMAN: Do people have reason to be afraid, Professor Chomsky, about a vaccine that’s been developed at — well, in Trump’s words, the name of the program — Warp Speed, that in his zeal at deregulation and to get a vaccine, which so many people want around the world, that there would be a danger in the original vaccines?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, if vaccines are rushed through, there’s always a danger. It means that many of the possibilities simply haven’t been tested. That’s what happens when you rush things through. Well, maybe the balance of costs and benefits says you should do it anyway.

But the real — what are we going to do? We’re talking about the United states, how to distribute a vaccine. What about Africa? What about Yemen? What about poor areas of Latin America? And what about the huge mass of deeply impoverished people in India? What’s going to happen to them? That’s most of the population of the world.

Well, you know, they get some relief from the World Health Organization. It hasn’t been discussed, as far as I know, but something pretty shocking just took place. When Trump, as I said before, flailing around to try to find some scapegoat to cover up the fact that he’s responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans, one of his targets is the World Health Organization — first, defunding; second, trying to destroy it.

What does this mean to tens of thousands, if not millions, of poor people in Africa? The World Health Organization is what provides them with medical support and treatment for the many diseases that they face all the time. Now it’s getting worse under the virus. What does it mean for Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, thanks to our providing Saudi Arabia with arms and intelligence so that they can destroy the country, a large part of it? The population, they have a terrible pandemic raging. The World Health Organization is one of the few means of providing medical support for them. So let’s withdraw it.

Getting rid of the — pulling out of the World Health Organization and defunding it is threatening the lives of huge, uncountable numbers of people. Why isn’t that a headline? Or even a small story somewhere? I mean, it’s shocking, what we’re overlooking. So, going back to your question of distribution of vaccines, they ought to be right in front. We should be doing something for them.

Well, there’s at least one country in the world that is showing genuine internationalism, providing medical aid and support for people who need it. When there was a pandemic in northern Italy — serious, serious epidemic in northern Italy — there were some rich countries to the north — Germany, Austria — which had it pretty much in control. They didn’t send doctors. Doctors were sent from Cuba, the country that the — a poor country that the United States has been trying to crush for 60 years. They were able to send doctors to northern Italy, as they’ve done before and elsewhere — not the rich countries in what’s called the European Union.

Well, that’s the kind of world we live in. This is sometimes covered and discussed in the U.S. media, but the way it’s done is to accuse the Cuban government of using slave labor to enrich themselves. That’s what it means for Cuba to send doctors to work in dangerous places to deal with a pandemic, as they’ve done many times before. It’s true that the Cuban government takes part of the funding for this to use for their medical system, their remarkable medical system. So, you turn that through the U.S. propaganda system, it becomes using slave labor to enrich themselves. This is the country that we are crushing, starting with a terrorist war and a vicious economic strangulation. The whole world is opposed to it. When it comes up in the United Nations every year, the world votes unanimously against the United States — one exception, Israel, which has to go along with the U.S. Everyone else opposed. Who cares? We’re the global pariah state. We don’t care about anybody else. These are things that ought to be front and center.

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