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Filipino Activist Walden Bello: Global Vaccine Disparity Shows “Irrationality of Global Capitalism”

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The international disparity in vaccine access between rich and low-income countries highlights “the irrationality of global capitalism,” says acclaimed Filipino scholar and activist Walden Bello, who urges the Biden administration to sign on to an effort at the World Trade Organization to temporarily waive intellectual property rules on vaccine technology. He also discusses the COVID crisis in the Philippines.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. You can watch, listen and read transcripts using our iOS and Android apps. You can download them for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store today. This is Democracy Now!

As we continue our coverage of the World Trade Organization and the fight over intellectual property rights during the pandemic, we’re joined by the acclaimed Filipino scholar and activist Walden Bello, the co-founder of Focus on the Global South. He’s an adjunct professor at Binghamton University and a former member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines. His new op-ed in The New York Times is headlined “The West Has Been Hoarding More Than Vaccines.”

Walden Bello, thanks for joining us again from Manila. Welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off —

WALDEN BELLO: Thank you for inviting me.

AMY GOODMAN: — by talking about the significance of these meetings and what difference it would make for people in the Philippines and in Asia, overall, in the Global South, for that matter.

WALDEN BELLO: Well, as you know, because of the shortage of vaccines, you know, we are in a situation where only about 0.2 or 0.3% of the population of the Global South has had access to vaccines. And here, for instance, in the Philippines, it’s only been around 260,000 people, or 0.025 of the population of 110 million people, who have had access to vaccines.

And, you know, there’s no certainty about when these vaccines will arrive. We have mainly gotten a few shipments from AstraZeneca, a significant number of donations from China, and, just the last two days, the Sputnik V, or Sputnik 5, from Russia arrived. But with respect to the Western vaccines, there’s a very great deal of uncertainty of when those would in fact be coming, because of the fact that a lot of vaccines that should have been going to the South have been hoarded by the European Union and by the United States.

You know, the press officer of the Biden administration, Ms. Psaki, has in fact said that our policy is to be oversupplied. And one of the things that the Biden administration did in response to the situation in India was to say it was going to be sending about 60 million doses of AstraZeneca. And it was found out, in a report in The New York Times, that those are potentially spoiled vaccines that were produced by this factory in Maryland that had been contaminated.

AMY GOODMAN: That also produced the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that led to a halt on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca somehow contaminated each other at this factory.

WALDEN BELLO: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah.

WALDEN BELLO: Right. And, you know, when people heard that, you know, my god, they’re sending spoiled vaccines to India. And that was taken as sort of, you know, “Well, let’s send the spoiled stuff to the Global South, and we’re going to keep the good stuff here in the United States.” So, that’s been sort of the mixed messaging that has been taking place with the rhetoric of the Biden administration.

I think it is going to be very important what happens in Geneva over the next two days. As Lori Wallach says, the decision point is: Will the U.S. stop blocking negotiations, or will it continue Trump’s policy? And, you know, this is the inflection point for the Biden administration with respect to the Global South. If it fails this one, there’s just going to be tremendous distrust of U.S. foreign policy initiatives. So, the test for Biden for the Global South has come very early, but then you don’t choose the time when these things come on. And as far as I know at this point, we don’t know exactly what is the thinking of the administration going into Geneva. And it’s kept its cards very close to its vest. But as I said in my column, in my guest editorial in The New York Times, Mr. Biden knows what is the right thing to do. And the question is: Will he have the courage to do the right thing?

AMY GOODMAN: Walden Bello, have you gotten a vaccine?

WALDEN BELLO: Yes, I have. As a senior, I was a priority. It’s called A2. And we were given the first dose of the vaccine, OK? So seniors in my city got the first dose of the vaccine. But the vast numbers of people, aside from seniors and from healthcare workers, frontline workers, have not gotten the vaccine yet. And will we get the second dose? We don’t know. It all depends, again, on developments in India and developments in different parts of the world.

Now, we would not have been facing this supply problem if, when India and South Africa had proposed the waiver the first time around, October of last year, and the U.S. and the rich countries, the other rich countries, hadn’t blocked it, we could have moved already to be able to get the formulas for the vaccine, the technologies to bring them out, repurposing, as Lori said, the big pharmaceutical capacities of a number of different countries in the Global South, like South Africa, India, Thailand. So, that could have already begun. But here, then, is a tragedy that we lost all that time. We lost about six months, because the U.S. was just not cooperating. It just was so shortsighted.

And it was caving in all the time to the pharmaceutical companies, who are tremendously unpopular in the Global South, but also in the United States, because these companies are just raking in, as we heard earlier, the billions that Pfizer is making. You know, it’s mainly out of — the biggest moneymaker has been the Pfizer vaccine over the last several months. So, it’s this very, very big contrast between what are the needs of humanity and what are the needs of these people in the drug industry, which not only are they making tremendous profits for their shareholders, but we’re talking about executives, that head these people — these corporations, making tremendous amounts in terms of their salaries, ranging from around $15 billion to — $15 million to $25 million a year. You know, these are the people, basically, among the 1%, who are making these decisions to block what would be benefits for the global poor, which is to live, you know, allow them to live.

So, this is really — if I may put it this way, this shows the tremendous irrationality of global capitalism, you know, where profits for a few takes precedence over the lives of many. This is why my sense is that the dynamics of this period of the pandemic has really exposed why we need to overcome capitalism, to get out of this system that allows these decisions to be made by a few, creates tremendous inequalities and allows a lot of people to die, because the medicines or the vaccines that would allow them to live are being blocked.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to talk about the Philippines. We’ve heard a lot about India, which we cannot hear enough about. They are going through a COVID tsunami. But the Philippines has recorded over a million COVID cases and at least 17,500 deaths, the single highest in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia, the second highest. Many hospitals are struggling to handle the latest surge in cases. I want to turn to a doctor in Manila.

DR. ROSE MARIE ROSETE-LIQUETE: Every hospital at the NCR, especially the government hospitals, they are now struggling. We noted an increase in the number of cases, just as we noted increase in the number of health workers being positive in the past, especially in the past — since March.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could talk about the crisis in the Philippines and Asia? But also, a poll has just come out, that was done in some 53 countries, and it says the U.S. is seen around the world now as more of a threat to democracy than Russia or China. And this goes to the difference between how Russia and China is dealing with the rest of the world in these vaccines and other technologies, medical treatments, and what the U.S. is seen as around the world.

WALDEN BELLO: Yes. Well, you know, over here in the Philippines and in a number of other Southeast Asian countries, like Cambodia and Thailand, there has been this second wave that has been occurring since early March. And the second wave has been more devastating than the first wave in 2020. And, you know, in the Philippines, they’ve been — you know, for a couple of weeks, records of infections were being broken almost every day. Within the last week, for instance, the infections have ranged from around 7,000 to 9,000 people being infected every day.

And so, we have a situation which is really bad in terms of hospital stays having — you know, having run out. And people — especially about two weeks ago, they’ve had to keep people in tents outside the hospitals. Some of them were even just in their cars. There have been incidents of people who couldn’t get into the hospital and just died in their car. And then, like we’ve heard in India, there’s been a shortage of oxygen, and stores are running out of oxygen tanks. And, you know, basically, something — it’s not as bad as what’s happening in India, but certainly it was pretty rough, and people were just not prepared for this situation.

Now, several factors really come into play here. One, of course, is the glitch in the vaccination program, mainly because the supplies aren’t coming in because of the hoarding by the Western countries. The second thing has been, to some extent, a sort of becoming a bit complacent in terms of social distancing and a number of other very important measures, like face masks being worn properly. But I think a big factor — and I think this is the central factor — is that the government has just been so inefficient and incompetent in dealing with this situation, where, you know, the —

AMY GOODMAN: So, you had President Duterte first saying he’s not going to take the vaccine. That enraged public health officials. Now he’s taken the Chinese vaccine.

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