Wednesday, April 17, 2024

India is burning, and the West keeps hoarding vaccines

The EU must put people before profits and ensure universal access to lifesaving coronavirus vaccines.

Sanka Chandima Abayawardena is in charge of digital communications, anti-Asian racism, decolonization and climate and race at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR). His opinions are his own.

As an Asian living in Europe, I’m in a state of despair watching what is happening to the communities of my extended family still living in South Asia. My sister, a frontline worker, cannot receive her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine because they are no longer available from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, in part because of decisions made in the United States and the European Union.

India is burning. The entire world is burning. But human life in the Global South seems to have no value to the countries who control the coronavirus vaccine monopoly. I felt angry, betrayed and abandoned when I discovered that the U.S. had used its defense production act to ban exports of the materials needed to make vaccines to India, resulting in a 50 percent drop in production.

Meanwhile, the U.S., the EU and Japan are blocking access to vaccines at the World Trade Organisation by opposing a request by South Africa and India to temporarily waive intellectual property rights until there are enough vaccines for everybody. They are in essence showing their middle finger to the world, while hoarding and purchasing all available production capacities.

Racism does not only manifest itself towards people of color living inside the EU or the U.S. The piles of burning bodies in India and other poor nations could have been avoided if the Global North had shown respect for human lives in their vaccine policy. Instead, they put profit over people.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated divides along regional and racial lines, reflecting the colonial world order. It has revealed once again how colonialism has created the extreme levels of inequality that continue to govern the world.

Many countries are yet to receive a single dose through the COVAX scheme or direct order. For most of the world’s people of color, their only hope are vaccines produced in India, Russia and China — and even then, the production is crippled by EU and U.S. policies. The EU, alongside other rich nations, has used their position of power and wealth to horde vaccines and reserve the available production capacity, leaving nothing for the rest of the world.

Even within the European borders, many migrants and racialized minorities are facing the intersection of discrimination in restricted access to vaccines because of a lack of identity papers, residence status or access to information. Asians are subjected to anti-Asian racism in Europe and driven to their death in Asia by the apartheid-stye vaccine colonialism.

Close to 150 million people have been infected by the coronavirus since the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Just like India today, many poor countries will face catastrophic levels of death and infection if we continue to place profit over human lives.

There is an alternative. The EU and its member countries could support India and South Africa’s proposal. By agreeing to temporarily waiving intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), they would show their commitment human decency and global cooperation and increase global access to vaccines. They would also save millions of lives.

As a values-based union, the EU has a moral obligation to remove barriers that could guarantee affordable medical supplies in needed quantities. Acknowledging the existence of the extreme inequality in the world and making resources to combat the pandemic available to the Global South — instead of merely sending humanitarian aid — is the bare minimum that EU leaders must commit to. Not doing this bare minimum is racist and inhumane. 

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