Covid Capitalism is a Catastrophic Failure For Most of Humanity — But the West Won’t Admit It
This post is going to make some of you angry, chill some of you, and make some of you weep with despair. You should.
By now, you’re beginning to read stories of Covid apocalypse in countries like India. Maybe South Africa. Perhaps Indonesia. Then will come Pakistan, Peru, Argentina. It’s just beginning. Covid apocalypse is on the way to becoming Covid holocaust. Don’t believe me? Good. Let’s dig in, together.
What do I mean by “Covid holocaust”? Am I exaggerating, like every white dude on planet earth is going to tell me, smugly, rolling their eyes? Let’s do a little simple math together, Chad. The world’s population is 8 billion people, give or take. Covid’s mortality rate — this is just the current variants — is about 2%. Let’s assume half the world eventually gets infected — so far, somewhere between 5 and 10% of the world has.
How many deaths is that? 160,000,000. Holocaust enough for you? That’s too much, to be sure. Let’s assume just half the world gets infected, at a mortality rate of 1%. Total number of deaths? Forty million.
That is modern history’s greatest holocaust, by a very long way.
At this juncture — and now we’re going to get to what this post is really about — some of you are going to object, angrily: “But vaccines! We have vaccines! You’re being ridiculous!” If only I were. “We” don’t have vaccines. The rich world has them. That’s 15% of people in the world. The other 80%? Of humanity? They barely have any vaccines, and they’re not getting them nearly fast enough to prevent the kind of tragedy that’s unfolding in places like India.
Why is that? Because the world’s approach to vaccination has failed catastrophically. And it is producing Covid apocalypse, which is sure to become Covid holocaust.
Poor countries are vaccinating people at a snail’s pace. India’s vaccinating two million people a day. Sound like a lot? At that rate, it takes almost two years for the country to be half-vaccinated, with one dose. And four years for it to be fully vaccinated. Suddenly, the Covid holocaust I’ve outlined above doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it? How many deaths is that, in a country of a billion people plus? Nobody can say, for sure. The upper limit is twenty million.
Let that sink in for a second.
Why are poor countries unable to vaccinate their populations? The Western myth — propounded by media, power figures, and lobbyists, is that they’re incompetent, they don’t care, they lack institutions, they’re lazy, and so on. In some cases, that’s partially true, like India, where Modi’s nationalism — “We won’t get Covid!!” — resulted in disaster. But there’s a deeper truth.
The world doesn’t have nearly enough vaccines to inoculate humanity against Covid.Our approach to vaccination has failed catastrophically, because it has produced massive shortages.
Why is that? The way the story goes is this. Vaccines were produced by a number of research labs. One at Oxford. BionTech was spun off from a university in Germany. And so on. Vaccines were developed with public money, as public investments. They were public goods. Like a park or a library, because they were had with public investment and development, they explicitly deserved to be used by everyone.
How big is “everyone”? The whole world, in fact — I’ll come back to that point.
So Covid vaccines were developed as public goods. But then something happened. Covid vaccines were privatized. All of them. Mysteriously. Snap — just like that — in the blink of an eye. They were eaten up by mega capitalism, like sharks feeding in a frenzy. Poof — gone. In a matter of weeks. And now the obvious is happening: gains are being internalized, while costs are being externalized. Only in this case, “gains” are profits, while “costs” are “death on the scale of a world war.” Because the side effect of all that — letting the market feast exclusively on the most important public good the world has needed in modern history, Covid vaccines, while nobody else is allowed to have even a morsel — is artificial scarcity. Which is now killing people, in a tidal wave of death.
Licenses were given to big pharma, exclusively. In Oxford’s case, AstraZeneca. In Biontech’s case, Pfizer. That’s despite, for example, the Oxford researchers saying they wanted to open-source vaccines, so they could be made anywhere, by any lab or manufacturer. That, in a sinister and strange turn of events, was apparently on the urging of the Gates Foundation. Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?
What happened after that? Rich nations — Canada, America, Europe — got together at the WTO to block open access to vaccines. They demanded strict patent protection.
The obvious result was what anyone half-educated in the ways of capitalism could have predicted: a situation of massive artificial scarcity. What keeps profits up? Artificial scarcity.
Pharma companies will argue that Covid vaccine shortages are natural — not artificial. There are critical stages of the supply chain that are simply missing enough ingredients. Should we believe them? In reality, there are labs and manufacturers crying out to make vaccines. Teva, in Israel, a major biotech firm, says it has plenty of spare capacity but other Pharma companies may be reluctant to work with them at risk of sharing trade secrets and diminishing competition in the industry.
Let me say summarise all that as concisely as I can, because any educated person with a functioning moral soul needs to understand this. Capitalism is doing what it was always going to do. Profiteering. By creating artificial scarcities. And so the result is that the world faces a dire, dire shortage of Covid vaccines.
How dire are we talking? The only manufacturer that struck a deal with AstraZeneca — before it was granted exclusive rights to the Oxford vaccines — was the Serum Institute of India. That one company now has the task of supplying most of the world with Covid vaccines. Obviously, it can’t be done. And so when India’s second wave hit with a vengeance, thanks to Modi’s nationalism, the doses that were to be sent abroad, to other poor countries, were diverted to be kept in India.
This is a terrible and horrific situation. We’re not talking about artificial scarcities for meaningless things — expensive cars or designer denim. We are talking about artificial scarcities for vaccines to a disease that will otherwise cause death on the nightmarish scale of a world war, killing tens of millions of people. We are talking about capitalism creating a global holocaust.
Let me sum that up too: Vaccine capitalism is creating a holocaust, by way of vaccine nationalism and apartheid. The world should be buzzing with facilities creating Covid vaccines. Plenty of even poor countries have such facilities — even places like Pakistan, Peru, Indonesia. India alone should be producing far, far more vaccines than it is.
The world can’t produce enough vaccines because it isn’t allowed to. It is being blocked by rich countries.
Why are rich countries blocking the world from openly, freely producing enough vaccines to stop an emerging holocaust? The chilling and terrifying truth is that there is no good reason. It is because nations like America are attached to capitalism, can’t admit its failures, and power figures like billionaires and intellectuals in those nations really believe that capitalism is going to solve the problem of Covid vaccines — even as disaster is unfolding around them.
It’s because the average rich Westerner is clueless and indifferent, spoiled, amoral, living in a Nietzschean universe where the strong deserve to survive and the weak perish, even as such a naive moral worldview tears apart their own societies.
There is no good reason the rich world is stopping the rest of the world from producing enough Covid vaccines. We come back, in the end, to the only reasons there have ever been for tragedy and atrocity. Ideology. Vanity. Hubris. Greed. Hate. The only reasons, in the end, the world doesn’t have enough Covid vaccines to prevent a holocaust, and isn’t going to get them, are money and power, or to put it more accurately, greed and violence. Cuba has been working to manufacture its own covid vaccine because of lack of trust in the global market. Vicente Vérez Bencomo, director-general of the state-owned Finlay Institute of Vaccines in Havana, says “We wanted to solely rely on our own capacities to vaccinate our population, not on other people’s decisions. And life is proving us right. What we’re seeing across the world is that vaccine supplies are being hoarded by rich countries.”
(What do you make of the following fact? The rich world that’s blocking the rest of the world from making Covid vaccines is white, and the rest of the world is not white. Is that racism? Of an unconscious, internalised kind? “Oh, I don’t have to care about those brown, black, whatever bodies,” whispers the subconscious of the rich white Westerner. “There are billions of them!” If it’s not racism, at the very least, in the real world, it’s produced vaccine apartheid: the white world has vaccines, and everyone else doesn’t. “We call them essential, but they’re considered expendable,” says the son of a woman who caught covid working in a meat-packing plant in California. But what is it called when you die of Covid because you’re black or brown or whatever else — due to centuries of exploitation and slavery leaving you poor and powerless — if not a kind of coda to hatred?)
It is shocking to me, on a personal level, that this is actually happening. It shouldn’t be, my cynical friends tell me. And I’ve replied to them, over the last year, with: “Look, even the West isn’t cynical enough to let a Covid apocalypse happen — it’s going to learn from its own mistakes, being slow off the mark.” I was wrong, and they were right. I am now predicting the worst case scenario for the world.
Because the rich world appears totally indifferent to a Covid holocaust. Nobody appears to care very much at all. About the facts on the ground, which are these. One, Covid capitalism has failed disastrously, by creating predictable artificial shortages, which keeps profits up, but minimise global vaccination rates. Two, the market was never going to solve this problem, because it’s a problem of public goods. Three, Westerners are uneducated about it, and indifferent to being educated about it. They’re mostly like, “Shrug, whatever. What do you want from me, man?!”
Let me close with a counter to a final objection — the dumb one. “We created Covid vaccines! So we can use them however we want!” No, my friend. Covid vaccines were all created — literally — as public goods. With public money, at public institutions. We create public goods not to hoard them, but to share them. That is because I am best off when a public good is used widely, too. I’m best off when everyone has access to the resources they need to live a good life-parks, schools, libraries, fire departments.
That’s exactly the same with vaccines. I am best off — even as a rich Westerner — when the world is vaccinated. As fast and cheap as possible. I am not best off — even as a rich Westerner — when the world is vaccinated as slowly and expensively as possible, so profits rise. Why? Isn’t it obvious? Because new variants will rise, which lower the efficacy of even my vaccination. Because it corrodes my own moral fiber, and makes me lazy, weak, indolent, stupid. Because it’s the right thing to do.
You’re beginning to read stories of Covid apocalypse in countries like India for a reason. We are failing catastrophically as a world to vaccinate humanity against Covid. You’ll hear many more such stories, from such countries. And they will all have been predictable. Like my more cynical friends, who said: “LOL — capitalism? Asking capitalism to vaccinate the world? That’s like asking a heat-seeking missile to cut out a tumour. It might, but only at the expense of everything else, too.” They were right. I was wrong.
The West didn’t learn a thing from its own failures. Covid capitalism is creating vaccine nationalism and vaccine apartheid, because vaccines are being massively undersupplied, because they are not open and free for the world to use, because money is still what matters most.
Money, for billionaires and corporations, in other words, matters more than tens of millions — maybe hundreds of millions of lives. Death on a massive scale, the level of a world war, genocide, a holocaust.
And if that doesn’t make you incandescent with rage, horror, heavy with despair, chilled to the bone — then, my friend, I imagine you might be numb, by now, to the horrors of the age we live in. But the truth is, we must work together to end this pandemic.