More than 3 million people have already died in the coronavirus pandemic, and more than 12,000 people continue to die every day across the world. Despite all the talk about “COVID-normal” or the “post-pandemic normal”, and despite vaccines progressively being rolled out, globally, we are “approaching the highest rate of infection that we have seen so far during the pandemic”, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on 16 April.
This is an urgent situation. Case numbers have increased in many parts of the world. In the US, the situation has temporarily stabilised—at more than 70,000 new cases and 700 deaths per day. In Brazil, more than 3,000 people are dying per day, and in India the situation is rapidly worsening, more than 200,000 new cases being reported per day.
Everywhere the virus takes hold, hospitals are overrun, and health systems and staff are pushed to the brink of collapse. Yet despite the alarm from scientists and medical professionals, governments remain reluctant to implement the full suite of public health measures necessary to end the pandemic. Indeed, economies continue to open amid claims that there is not enough money for the sorts of measures that are needed.
But money has been flowing during the pandemic. Global military spending was up by 3.9 percent (or US$60 billion) last year, despite the world economy shrinking by more than 4 percent, and annual spending is now approaching US$1.5 trillion. In the US, where both major parties decry the idea of universal public health care as unaffordable, President Biden is maintaining the Trump administration’s increase to military spending. The US spends more on its military than the next eight countries combined.
India, where hundreds of thousands have died from COVID, is also increasing its military spending. According to the Indian government’s own statistics, military spending is five times higher than healthcare spending, accounting for 11 percent of the budget. This is utterly criminal in a country with such huge levels of poverty, and virtually no public healthcare system for most of the population.
The money is not going just to build weapons of mass destruction. Huge amounts of wealth are being concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Forbes magazine estimates that the world’s 2,755 billionaires are now collectively worth more than US$13 trillion—an increase of more than $5 trillion over the last year. According to Oxfam, the combined wealth of the world’s ten richest men rose by US$540 billion during the pandemic—the charity claims that this would easily be enough to pay for vaccines for the entire global population.
Yet governments are moving in the opposite direction. “Globally, 459 million doses of vaccine have been administered, but 76 per cent of those are in just ten countries”, WHO Director-General Ghebreyesus said in early April. “The success of COVAX [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, which is meant to make sure everyone gets access to a vaccine] is at risk because of the demand that some high and upper-middle-income countries are putting on the global supply of vaccines.”
The Australian government, for example, has ordered 150 million doses of vaccine, despite the population being just 25 million and despite there being almost zero community transmission. Australian citizens can expect to be vaccinated well before people from other countries in the region, where the virus is running rampant.
Western governments are also putting Western pharmaceutical company profits before people, refusing to grant intellectual property exemptions to allow the mass production of vaccines.
The chair of Bangladesh-based Incepta Pharmaceuticals, Abdul Muktadir, told the ABC in March that the company could manufacture up to 800 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines annually. “If we get the ready-to-fill material or antigen ... we can make this vaccine available to our entire nation[al] population within two to three months’ time”, he said. “Then Indonesia or any other nation where authorities want to take the vaccination from us, we can give it to them within 2021.”
Yet the Australian government has helped to block such supply to most of the world’s population by prohibiting production. This profits-before-people approach will result in hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of unnecessary deaths by prolonging the pandemic for perhaps several years in some places, not to mention increasing the likelihood of further mutations.
“We are in a race against time to get global transmission rates low enough to prevent the emergence and spread of new variants”, the Lancet medical journal noted in a sobering assessment in mid-April. “The danger is that variants will arise that can overcome the immunity conferred by vaccinations or prior infection.”
Some variants are already showing themselves to be more resistant, or evasive. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more mutations will develop. But at each step of the way—whether it was refusing to initiate lockdowns or institute mask mandates, failing to implement public health measures, failing to resource public health institutions adequately, prematurely ending public health orders or refusing to allow the mass production of vaccines—profits have, one way or another, been put before people.