What the vaccine debacle tells us about predatory capitalism
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.
Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.
The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.
“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.
Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.
Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:
“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”
He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.
“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.
Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.
“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.
The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”
The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.
And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.
Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.
“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.
Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.
The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.
Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.
More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.
“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”
Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”
The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.
In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.
Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”
Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”
The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.
Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021
Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?
For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.
The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.
At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.
The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.
Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet
National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.
The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.
The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads.
The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.
“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.
“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”
“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.
“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.