In an AP article last December, Maria Cheng and Aniruddha Ghosal noted that, despite official optimism concerning the capacity of emerging vaccines to provoke the definitive decline of the COVID-19 pandemic, “the chances that coronavirus shots will be shared fairly between rich nations and the rest are fading fast.” Their fears have been confirmed.
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Natasha Frost at The New York Times reports on how wealth inequality has led to vaccine inequality, with the potentially disastrous effect of prolonging an already year-old global pandemic. She blames the various political establishments that have allowed this to happen. “It didn’t have to be like this,” she writes. “Western governments have resisted the call from global health officials to use rarely employed aggressive powers that could have forced companies to publish vaccine recipes, share their knowledge and ramp up manufacturing, in turn leading to broader vaccine access.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Special tools of government designed to address real, serious and urgent problems, sometimes mobilized to prosecute wars, but never employed to modify practices that might compromise the prospect of profit by private companies
Military aggression (invasion, war, bombing campaigns) and economic aggression (sanctions, embargoes, boycotts) are the two policy instruments contemporary governments privilege to defend what they deem to be their “national interest.” Democratic nations continue to claim, against all evidence, that aggressive and fundamentally destructive actions taken against other peoples or nations — to kill, maim or simply create economic deprivation — are efficient means designed to protect their own people’s interest. Since commercial media never question this logic, discussion of what “national interest” implies never even enters the public’s field of awareness. War and sanctions sound virile and so must be good.
Whereas the English language has easily accepted “military aggression” and “economic aggression” as useful descriptive terms, the idea of “health aggression” has no place in anyone’s vocabulary. Health is not something the political infrastructure believes it can or should do anything “aggressive” about. It is both too personal and too profitable. In the US in particular, health is not considered to be something to strive for, but simply as a marketplace in which, as Cole Porter once said, anything goes (to make a profit).
In an AP article by Cheng and Lori Hinnant that appeared earlier this month, the authors explain that the marketing policies of pharmaceutical companies are the source of what is quickly becoming a desperate situation for the majority of humankind. Companies “that took taxpayer money from the U.S. or Europe to develop inoculations at unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licensing deals with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.”
Any rational human being with a basic understanding of language should be shocked by two words in the concluding phrase of that sentence. The first is “their.” The companies believe they exclusively own what a community built and paid for. Analyzing the logic of a supply chain and production line makes it clear that the areas they have invested in turn out to be testing, redesign, packaging and delivery. These are important features of any product. But they do not justify the claim of exclusive ownership.
The second shocking term is “safety.” The firms deem themselves protectors of their customers’ “safety.” Their role in the process of combating the virus consists of refining the product and testing it to meet public safety standards. But the marketing attitude that guides their actions continues to privilege the idea of hoarding, seeking monopolistic advantage and exploiting scarcity in a marketplace. This poses a serious risk of undermining public safety and preventing the coordinated action that alone could lead to the elimination of a global pandemic.
During the discussions to fund the vaccines, the private companies selected for the honor of producing the vaccines destined to save the world in all probability declined to take on the burden without the assurance that the research would be fully funded and the intellectual property (IP) would be assigned to them as a guarantee of future profit. The politicians who accepted those terms were undoubtedly guided by the wisdom of the economics 101 course they attended decades ago in their youth that taught them how the focus on profit is the key to economic efficiency. The higher the profit, the greater the efficiency, they were told.
In the past four decades, this logic has even been applied to the universities that offered those courses. They have become profit-focused institutions, dedicated to supporting the bloated salaries of the administration that “ensures” efficiency rather than the educational vocation of the institution.
Today’s drama could stand as a model lesson for a future economics 101 course, though few would imagine that profit-driven universities will be very keen on the update. If the universities refuse, it should be taught in every high-school civics class on earth. Economics 101.1 would emphasize the perversity of an economic system that forces ordinary citizens in wealthy countries to finance through taxes the research that their government will then donate to private companies that, in turn, will inevitably claim the IP without ever investing a penny of their own money.
This pattern of socializing private companies and endowing them with product lines that ensure massive future profits through monopolistic exploitation is not limited to the pharmaceutical sector. The giants of Silicon Valley have grown into mastodons who control not just their highly-profitable marketplace, but also people’s lives (their behavior) and minds (their thoughts), thanks to the same process.
How did we get to this point? To answer that question would require an encyclopedia delving into questions of finance, technology, politics and culture. One obvious factor is the triumph of the idea of globalization that became an article of faith for all “serious thinkers” and most politicians in recent decades. Thomas Friedman famously summed it up with the idea that “the world is flat.” It turns out that when the only recognized motivator of any kind of action concerning human health and safety — or indeed anything else — is money and profit, any other of the needs we expect the economy to address become secondary. In classic economics, a situation of needs not being met will create the demand that a new enterprise will seek to fulfil.
Our pundits and economic thinkers imagine that, in a global economy, the process will be even more efficient because competition can come from any direction and supply chains can be easily reconfigured. In no time at all, the needs will be effectively and efficiently addressed. But the conditions for any new competitor to realize such a scenario require three largely unattainable conditions: extravagant funding to attain a scale of credible performance, recognition by public authorities (which often requires prior contributions to their political campaigns), and the belief in the possibility of a monopolistic position.
Guaranteed monopoly is the hardest to achieve for a newcomer, which is why over the past two decades, pundits have highlighted the necessity of disruptive innovation. This generally means focusing on a specific market opportunity rather than addressing a fundamental need. It also means that if the need is global, there is absolutely no chance of a newcomer having an impact. The major players are safe from new competition. Disruptive innovation is a wonderful way to spawn new gadgets or convenience products. Unfortunately, global societal needs require global societal reflection, research, coordination and concerted action.
During the wars of the 20th century, democratic nations mobilized the “aggressive powers” provided by their laws to respond to the emergency of global conflict. This posed no challenge to the principles of democracy, where all shared the idea that such measures were required for the safety of the national population. War profiteering existed, since any intense effort creates new areas of economic opportunity, but governments were guided by the collective needs of the nation. They refused to allow policy to be dictated by the profiteers.
With the first of what may become a series of pandemics converging with an impending global climate crisis, it might just be time for politicians to show their aggression by putting public safety ahead of private profit, even if it means revising the syllabus of economics 101.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.