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Share the Vaccines, Erase the Debt: Joseph Stiglitz on How the U.S. Can Help Developing Countries

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Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says wealthy countries have a responsibility to help the developing world in overcoming the pandemic. He says the response must include vaccine equity as well as economic aid, including debt relief. “America won’t be free from the pandemic until the world is,” says Stiglitz.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Stiglitz, you and fellow Nobel laureate economist Michael Spence have issued a call for vaccine equity and pandemic debt relief for the Global South, the issue also the subject of a new report by the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s Commission on Global Economic Transformation. Talk more about your call and what role the Biden administration could play to fight the pandemic globally.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, there are two principles that I’d want to emphasize. First, the world won’t be free from the pandemic — America won’t be free from the pandemic until the world is. And we’re especially concerned now because of the evidence of mutations. And if that disease, COVID-19, is going on elsewhere, it gives it opportunities to mutate and come back and inflict us. And we don’t know the extent to which the vaccines will protect us against these mutations. So far things are OK, but you have to worry. So we have to get the disease under control everywhere. So, it’s in our self-interest. It’s, of course, a matter of humanitarian concern, as well.

And the second principle is, there won’t be a strong global recovery unless there’s a recovery everywhere. So, that means, first, we have to make sure that vaccine is available everywhere. And unfortunately, right now there is what some people call vaccine hoarding. The developed countries are getting vaccinated. There are dozens of developing countries that have not yet had a single vaccine.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, as one doctor said to us, he has gotten more vaccines, his normal two-dose, than 130 countries.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: That’s right. To put another way, Canada has acquired contracts for nine times its population, while dozens of poor countries have zero.

AMY GOODMAN: And there’s a fight now in the Biden administration around AstraZeneca. The U.S. has tens of millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Other countries are begging for it. And so far, the U.S. has not released them to other countries.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, the real issue here that we emphasize is this is an artificial shortage, that if you had a waiver of intellectual property rights, something that is being discussed right now with the WTO, but, unfortunately, the advanced countries, including the United States, have not come out strongly for that waiver, there are — you know, just like President Biden pointed out that you could have Merck help produce a vaccine that was discovered, developed by another company, because it had excess capacity, there are many companies in developing countries that could produce massive amounts of vaccine if they had the right, the intellectual property, if they get access to the technology. So, that’s why it’s so important for us to have the suspension of intellectual property rights relative to — related to COVID-19. It’s just foolish that we aren’t doing it. And it’s particularly unconscionable, given that the advanced countries’ governments have actually financed a very large fraction of that research, and the companies themselves are already making multiple returns on their investments.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, this issue of debt relief, what would it look like, and what role could the U.S. play in the debt relief of developing countries?

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Well, you know, the United States has been spending almost 25% of its GDP to support its economy, if we include the $1.9 trillion that just passed. It has helped. It has actually worked. And then I think that it will work. But the developing countries just don’t have the resources. They can’t have that kind of fiscal stimulus, the fiscal support for the economy. And that means that those countries whose economy is afflicted, which is most of them, are going to have a hard time coming back.

Well, there are two things. One is a special issue of what are called SDRs, special drawing rights, which are kind of money that IMF issues. There’s a call for 500 billion SDRs, some $650 billion of SDRs. Unfortunately, under the previous administration, Trump vetoed this initiative. This would make an enormous difference.

The second thing is, there are some countries that are particularly badly afflicted. They have debt, and their economy, all their money is going to — or a very large portion is going to — service that debt. There has to be debt relief. Now, in the beginning, there was an agreement there would be a stay in payments in debt. But that just meant that the debt wasn’t released; it just meant it was postponed. Now that the pandemic has lasted so much longer than people thought in the beginning, what is needed is a debt restructuring. And it has to be comprehensive. It has to include the private sector. What the United States could do is to make it much more — to help the — induce the private sector to participate. They’ve been reluctant to participate. They have not been willing to face the reality —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.

JOSEPH STIGLITZ: Oh. They’ve not been able — so, they need to encourage the private sector to participate in these debt restructurings.

AMY GOODMAN: Joe Stiglitz, I want to thank you for being with us, Nobel Prize-winning economist, Columbia University professor, chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute, served as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton and as chief economist at the World Bank, speaking to us from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

When we come back, we’ll air a shocking report from inside Yemen on the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis, then speak with the correspondent. Stay with us.

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