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What the vaccine debacle tells us about predatory capitalism

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Vaccines have been a beacon of hope amid a raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 2.4 million people and brought world economies to a halt. They have been presented as a remedy that would put an end to the immense suffering – physical, emotional, and economic – caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

But as vaccine roll-out has faltered due to various foreseen and unforeseen circumstances, the light of this imaginary beacon seems to be getting dimmer. As a recent article published in the leading medical journal The Lancet concludes, “new vaccines will mean little to individuals around the world if they are unable to get vaccinated in a timely manner”.

Months after several vaccines were approved for use, vaccination campaigns have been disappointingly slow, and if deployment continues at the present rate, only a few of the world’s richest countries are expected to achieve herd immunity before the end of the summer. Meanwhile, new virus mutations continue to emerge, putting into question the effectiveness of existing vaccines.

Some have put the blame for the vaccine debacle on the cumbersome bureaucracy of governments and on anti-vaxxer sentiments. But the root of the problem lies elsewhere. It has to do with a dysfunctional global economic system propped up by three ideological myths: that the private sector is best at innovation; that unregulated markets are best at managing supply and demand; and that the outcome of globalisation is fair for all.

Amid the pandemic and the botched vaccination efforts, these myths are starting to crumble right before our eyes.

Myth one: The private sector is the best innovator

One foundational myth of global capitalism is that private entrepreneurship is the only effective source of innovation and progress. But Big Pharma has long demonstrated this is not necessarily so.

For decades, vaccines have been de-prioritised by the industry as insufficiently profitable. For example, despite the persistence of deadly outbreaks of the Ebola virus in West Africa, there were no serious efforts to develop a vaccine against it until after the epidemic of 2014. And up until the coronavirus pandemic, companies like BionNTech – which partnered with Pfizer to develop a COVID-19 vaccine – were mostly focusing on the application of the mRNA technology in drugs rather than vaccines.

The swift development of COVID-19 vaccines came only in the wake of significant financial support by governments, combined with massive buyout contracts using taxpayers’ money. For instance, US government agencies gave Moderna alone some $2.5bn to help develop the vaccine and buy doses.

That is, the public sector was a key driver of COVID-19 vaccine development and public funds are used to finance the process. In effect, pharmaceutical companies secured a cost-reduced development and risk-free launch of a new product.

The claim that private companies are best at innovation is further eroded by the fact that at least two state-owned companies, Russia’s Gamaleya Institute and China’s Sinopharm, were successful in developing effective vaccines.

All of this is not to question the efficacy of available vaccines or the devoted work of the researchers who developed them. Rather, it is to point out the fact that privatising the vaccine development effort not only is too costly and exploitative, but it is also inefficient, as it prevents scientists from collaborating and sharing research to come up with the best possible vaccine.

Myth two: The invisible hand of the market is effective

Another capitalist myth is that competitive markets are the best regulators of supply and demand and the best at achieving the optimal distribution of goods. In early 2020, we witnessed the dark side of this fable, as countries started to outbid each other for vital medical equipment, such as PPE and ventilators.

Demand was high across the board, but supply only went to the wealthy few, at the price of many human lives. This is now happening again, as, amid severe undersupply of vaccines, governments are scrambling to secure enough doses for national use.

Israel has achieved its spectacular vaccination rate by paying higher prices for the vaccines. The US is trying to follow suit. Even within the European Union, where a coordinated response and fair distribution of vaccines in proportion to member states’ populations was negotiated, it emerged that wealthier countries like Germany have managed to secure more vaccines for themselves.

If the present situation continues, where the highest bidders can buy as much as they want, even if it is more than they need, supply will continue to fall short of global demand. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called it “vaccine nationalism”, but what it really is is vaccine capitalism. Countries are rushing to outbid each other on vaccines because there is an inadequate supply, and there is inadequate supply because pharmaceutical companies are allowed not to share their inventions with the world.

As Scottish economist Adam Smith has pointed out, any trade secret is a form of monopoly, and in this sense, pharmaceutical patents enable the supplier to impose a monopoly. Keeping vaccines the exclusive intellectual property of companies renders deployment not only too costly, but also inefficient, as it severely limits production capacities.

Myth three: Capitalist globalisation is fair

The third key myth of late-stage capitalism that is now unravelling portrays globalisation as equally beneficial for all. But a cursory look at the global distribution of vaccines shows that this is far not the case.

As Western countries are able to acquire vaccines, albeit at different pace, many other parts of the world have not even started their vaccination campaigns. Even emerging economies – some of which served as the testing ground for the vaccines – are struggling with limited supply.

As a result of this global inequality in vaccine distribution, we are not only facing what WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus has called a “catastrophic moral failure”, but also an inevitable global economic disaster. Economists are already warning that an uneven global vaccine roll-out would be much costlier for wealthy countries than a coordinated deployment of vaccines.

If the current immunisation inequality persists, the deployment of vaccines in wealthier countries can become close to useless. Even if herd immunity is achieved in some countries, persistent outbreaks in others will continue to disrupt travel and global supply chains. One study suggests that if there is no serious global effort for an equitable vaccination campaign, this could cost developed countries $4.5 trillion.

Immunity cannot function as the privilege of the few. Immunised wealthy countries may try sealing themselves off from the rest, but the sustainability of this global apartheid will be questionable and the human cost – surely appalling.

Disaster capitalism breeds disaster

Canadian author Naomi Klein has famously defined disaster capitalism as a brand of predatory capitalism that seeks to extract profit from natural or human-made crises. The fallout of the current pandemic has allowed us to see this idea go further: while preying on disaster, capitalist forces can magnify it and create a new, much bigger one.

In a globally intertwined economy vitally dependent on the movement of workers and complex supply chains, the lack of vaccine coverage for significant parts of the global population means the virus will have ample room to mutate, evade any newly created immunity, and travel far. New vaccines will continue to be developed, but given the delayed and uneven deployment, COVID-19 will always be one step ahead.

This does not bode well for the future of billions of ordinary people whose lives will be disrupted by the virus, but it seems to sit well with the wealthy who are currently making a windfall out of COVID-19 outbreak.

If we are to end the pandemic, save human lives, and prevent economic catastrophe for the most vulnerable, we urgently need to overhaul the mechanisms of disaster capitalism and ensure that vaccines are equitably distributed and anti-COVID measures effectively implemented across the world.

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Capitalism’s connection to our ever-worsening mental health

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In 2011, British writer and cultural theorist Mark Fisher penned an essay entitled The Privatisation of Stress, perfectly capturing the relationship between depression, social conditions under capitalism and increasing alienation in the post-Reagan/Thatcherite years.

“It is hardly surprising that people who live in such conditions—where their hours and pay can always be increased or decreased, and their terms of employment are extremely tenuous—should experience anxiety, depression,” Fisher wrote. “But . . . this privatization of stress has become just one more taken-for-granted dimension of a seemingly depoliticized world.”

I think of Fisher and his writings often. I regularly reread his most famous work, Capitalist Realism, and have always admired his ability to not only write through depression and anxiety but to connect social conditions with our ever-worsening mental health. Despite headlines constantly blaring that our standard of living is ever increasing and our collective wealth is more abundant than ever, social stressors gnaw away at the foundations of our collective psyche.

The death of culture and art, for example, evident in the endless production of music algorithmically designed to evoke feeling but never provoke emotion. Literature circumscribed to appeal to the endless adolescence of an arrested readership. Tent-pole superhero films that have long since ossified and crumbled within the vaults of Disney and Warner Bros. The death of fulfilling labour, where the gig economy has driven the concept of “work” into utter absurdity (no pensions, no benefits, often no pay!), and the death of social institutions, including the church (which forever haunts us with its most destructive remnants, such as dogmatism and puritanism, even in the most liberal social scenes).

And, of course, a political culture that abides no realities, possibilities, no faint hopes outside of the neo-liberal consensus. Nowhere is the death of better things more evident than with the newly minted Joe Biden administration.

From a much-feted Inauguration Day poem by 22-year-old youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman calling for national healing (yet drawing water from the shallow and toxic pool of American exceptionalism that remains permanently tainted by its history of chauvinism, hypocrisy and genocide), to the collective meltdown over Bernie Sanders’ frumpy winter attire (viewed by many apoplectic liberals as an offensive gesture to the pageantry of the inauguration; these people can’t even be happy when they get what they want), to a trillion-dollar stimulus package that will once again deliver the goods to large corporations while handing out sparse change to working Americans (and yet again denying them universal health care, even during a deadly pandemic), the state of American politics is yet another handshake in the devil’s bargain that is capitalism.

Despite the COVID epidemic and endless political urgings for all of us to pull together, Black people continue to die at the hands of police. Children remain separated from their parents and sleep on cold floors behind ICE fencing. Wall Street hedge funds clamour for bailouts because investor pushback on their long-time market manipulations managed to blow up their plans. Suicide hotlines are overworked; polling of Canadians and Americans show we are contemplating suicidal ideation at heretofore unseen levels.

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Two million dead: The tragedy of capitalism

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Over 2 million have been killed as a result of COVID-19, perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 21st century. Protecting the sanctity of human life should be every country’s number one priority in a global pandemic, so what has gone so wrong?

COVID-19 cases continue to soar across the world, with the free-market oriented liberal democracies of the world leading in death tolls and death rates. The UK and United States of America have made it clear that there will not be any mass efforts made to eradicate the virus entirely. 

From the start, scientists have stated that the only way to save lives is to freeze human movement in order to starve the virus of its hosts and eventually eradicate it from the population. Countries such as China, Vietnam, Cuba and New Zealand have successfully curbed the spread of the virus, keeping both new cases and related deaths at an all-time low. This was done through rigorous testing and state-wide restriction measures.

According to data confirmed by John Hopkins University, the official COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. hit a grim milestone of 500,000 on February 23. The U.S. and European countries are among the top 10 spots for highest death rates (per million). This is almost a year since the virus first arrived on either continent’s shores. In comparison, China’s current COVID-19 death toll remains under 5,000 and its neighbor Vietnam’s is under 50.

In a press conference led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, plans were discussed for lockdown restrictions to ease over the next few months, with nightclubs anticipated to re-open on June 21. It was stated that the UK public should “expect the disease to become a manageable problem comparable to winter flu.” The government will reportedly work toward deciding an “acceptable” number of deaths to justify the complete re-opening of the economy.

In no civilized, morally upstanding society should the mandate of “acceptable” deaths be uttered by the state when these deaths are entirely preventable. The UK government has made an active choice to allow its most vulnerable populations to die.

In the words of Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs;” every member of society is as valuable as the next and should have access to an equal quality of life, whether disabled or not. In a truly democratic, people-centered society, the state should mobilize all of its resources and productive forces to ensure that these vulnerable populations receive the highest priority of care and attention. However, latest figures show that the UK has failed to do so.

Sixty percent of people in the UK who have died from COVID-19 were disabled, and people with learning or developmental disabilities are 3.7 times more likely to die from COVID-19. 

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Peace And The Council For Inclusive Capitalism

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The recently formed Council for Inclusive Capitalism with the Vatican seeks to foster a more equitable financial system. The Council was announced in December of 2020 and comprises a group of CEOs and global leaders in collaboration with Pope Francis. 

The group hopes to realise a model of capitalism which enhances equality of opportunity, intergenerational equity, fairness and equity of outcomes. It aims to transform the private sector by garnering actionable commitments from organisations related to the International Business Council’s four sustainability pillars: People, Planet, Prosperity and Principles of Governance. The commitments will also advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), contributing to enhance well-being, reduce poverty, improve gender equality and regulate and reduce climate change, among other goals. 

The Council comprise part of a broader social movement toward stakeholder capitalism which emerged after the 2008 financial crisis. Stakeholder capitalism holds that businesses have an ethical and social responsibility to consider the interests of their stakeholders as well as their shareholders. Stakeholders include anyone affected by a business’ actions: employees, investors, environmental organisations, future generations and members of the public affected by externalities. It stands in contrast to shareholder capitalism, which claims that the sole responsibility of businesses is to maximise shareholder value (MSV). 

The Council’s founder Lynn Forester de Rothschild cites the financial crisis and the subsequent occupy wall street movement as highlighting the inequities of the financial system. She told Reuters magazine: “Basically, I was a money-is-good, neo-liberal person who believed in the sanctity and sanity of free markets. A rising tide lifts all boats, and all that.” UN special envoy Mark Carney argues that the crisis exposed the moral injustices of a financial system operating largely on the basis of MSV. After the crisis, it became obvious that there were banks that were “too big to fail” and financial bubbles that reflected gross economic inequities. Inclusive capitalism attempts to reform the system to cater to a more just distribution of goods and resources. 

The success of the Council for Inclusive Capitalism’s efforts will depend to a large extent on the protocols they put into place to monitor the goals and progress of the organisations they work with and prevent greenwashing. Further, although it boasts over $10.5 trillion in assets under management, its influence may be too small to make any tangible difference. Stakeholder capitalism also faces considerable adversaries who argue that maximising values besides shareholder value will have a detrimental effect on the market. The latter debate is both technical and ideological.

Setting aside these issues, however, the social movement toward Inclusive Capitalism may have interesting implications for violent conflict. According to the Development for Peace, while economic inequality alone does not predict the rate of violent conflict in a given nation, it is an explanatory factor in conflicts between groups divided by ethnic, religious or cultural identities. Economic inequality exacerbates conflict where intergroup tensions already exist, especially when these inequalities exist along ethnic or sectarian divides. Economically dominant minorities are often targets for discrimination and persecution. In its ideal form, Inclusive Capitalism is purported to enable “all people to pursue prosperity and quality of life, irrespective of criteria such as socio-economic background, gender, ethnicity, religion or age.” A widespread shift toward corporations engaging in more stringent Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG), encouraged by groups such as the Council for Inclusive Capitalism, could thus have secondary social benefits in alignment with the goals of the Organisation for World Peace.

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