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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.
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.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Walden Bello, I wanted to ask you about China and U.S.-China relations in light of all of this. On Tuesday, foreign ministers from G7 nations met in London. They’re continuing to meet. China topped the agenda. This comes as both China and the United States are accusing each other of escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Last week, the Chinese government claimed there’s been a 40% increase of activity by U.S. planes in Chinese-claimed areas since Biden took office. Activity of U.S. military ships is up 20%. On Sunday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken appeared on 60 Minutes and accused China of acting in increasingly adversarial ways.
SECRETARY OF STATE ANTONY BLINKEN: It is the one country in the world that has the military, economic, diplomatic capacity to undermine or challenge the rules-based order that we care so much about and are determined to defend. But I want to be very clear about something, and this is important. Our purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down. It is to uphold this rules-based order that China is posing a challenge to. Anyone who poses a challenge to that order, we’re going to stand up and defend it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the secretary of state, Tony Blinken. And, Walden Bello, I was wondering if you can weave this in. We’ve been having this discussion about vaccines and the U.S. really being seen, in the eyes of the world, right now as more of a danger to the world, especially when compared to Russia and China, Russia and China getting out their own vaccines and facilitating others, the U.S. not doing the same at this point. If you can link that to this also increased tension between China and the United States?
WALDEN BELLO: Yes. You know, first of all, I think that when people look at what the Trump administration did with respect to blocking the TRIPS waiver and then contrast that to the way that China was shipping Chinese vaccines — OK, Sinovac, Sinopharm — to countries in the Global South, OK, there was a very big contrast there. In fact, these shipments were donations being given. Now, in the case of the Philippines, for instance, the Sinovac is the only vaccines, until about two days ago, that were available for the general population. Yes, we had the AstraZeneca vaccine from Europe that had come in, and seniors were vaccinated with it, but the vast majority has been Sinovac that has come in. So, I think, in terms of the impact on the Global South, there’s been that contrast.
Now, when it comes to the Philippines, this sort of donations of the Chinese vaccine has, however, been seen suspiciously by a large part of the population as basically China’s effort to buy off the government in terms of the sovereignty rights in the South China Sea, or what we call here the West Philippine Sea, because the Duterte administration has in fact hardly protested against the moves of China in the West Philippine Sea, or the South China Sea, around taking over and infringing on maritime formations that lie within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. And so, yeah, we have the situation within the South China Sea whereby a number of the countries here, including the Philippines and Vietnam, feel that they have been really disadvantaged by China’s claiming that the whole South China Sea, or West Philippine Sea, belongs to it alone, 90% of that, whereas all these other five other countries border on it. Now, that’s a basic injustice, let me put it that way. That’s really territorial aggrandizement that’s taking place. However, OK — and China mustn’t be doing that.
However, you really need to look at it within this broader regional context, where China is surrounded by something like in the order of 55 to 60 U.S. military bases coming down, from Japan to South Korea to Guam to the Philippines, where they have five bases over here. You’ve got to look at it in the context of the South China Sea, in fact. You know, basically, the 7th Fleet of the United States has deployed itself and considers that basically a free zone for its ships. And so, what we’re seeing is that China’s perspective or posture has been that of strategic defense. And even the Pentagon admits that China’s strategic posture is that of strategic defense, whereas that of the United States is more of an offensive, rapid forward deployment.
And basically what I want to say is this, OK? China’s moves in the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea, are not justified. They’re illegal. But at the same time, they are made in terms of a strategic response to U.S. encirclement and heightened U.S. military activity. OK? And Blinken — that’s why we need to look at this, you know, Blinken’s statement. You know, it’s a warmongering statement. I mean, they came like gangbusters in the Anchorage meeting about two months ago, where Blinken basically —
AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, Walden.
WALDEN BELLO: Yes — acted so arrogantly towards the Chinese. You know, so I guess my point is this. Trump’s anti-China policy is now also being followed by the administrations of — the Biden administration’s intensified [inaudible] —
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will continue to explore this issue. Thank you so much to Walden Bello, acclaimed Filipino scholar. I’m Amy Goodman.