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COVID and capitalism: vaccine nationalism and trade deals

John Bell

November 25, 2020

“One of the things to remember is Canada no longer has any domestic production capacity for vaccines. Countries like the United States, Germany and the U.K. do have domestic pharmaceutical facilities which is why they’re obviously going to prioritize helping their citizens first.”

Jaws dropped across the nation when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood before his cottage/bunker and threw cold water on expectations for a quick and smooth roll-out of any forthcoming COVID vaccine.

Some observers predict Canadians will have to wait extra months, and perhaps a year to get inoculated. And if that is the fate of Canada, what can people in the “Global South” expect.

To compensate for the lack of production and the failure of leadership, the Canadian government went on a mad shopping spree, signing contracts to purchase vaccines from as many as 9 drug companies even before it knew which would be effective.

The first question that comes to mind, and one we all should be asking is: why the fuck do we not have this basic public health capacity! Why does a nation which once led the world in medical research, with names like Banting, Best and Fleming, have no capacity produce vaccines?

The second question that comes to mind, and one we all should be asking is: why the fuck is government not building some? Why has a government, supposedly taking leadership dealing with the pandemic for at least 10 months, not acted promptly to create production capacity?

Essentially Canada lost its independent productive capacity with the election of Brian Mulroney’s Tory government, and their agenda of privatization and globalized trade deals like NAFTA.

Previous to that Canadian manufacturers were connected to universities, where research was directed by other considerations beside pure profit. And there were upstart corporations dedicated to producing generic, inexpensive versions of medications.

According to Earl Brown, an infectious disease expert, “The problem was they had a poor business model. These were vaccine companies spun off from universities, so there was indirect funding and they had a model of not making so much profit.”

So when trade rules were changed to favour globalized production, Canadian labs got bought out by big multinationals.

Of course the other course of action – to recognize the strategic importance of such capacity, to prioritize public health, and to nationalize drug production – never occurred to free market worshipping politicians. Trade deals strengthened “intellectual property” rights of corporations at the expense of human rights to health care. Critics like Brown call this a “glitch” in the trade treaties – but was the whole point of deals like NAFTA; Canada deliberately traded industrial capacity for greater access to resource extraction industries.

Long story short, the Canadian ruling class, Liberals and Tories alike, trade away our ability to make vaccines for the tar sands.

The fact that Trudeau is leading the charge to shop until we drop dead, instead of  announcing that his government will move at all speed to create the production capacity we need now and in the future is a massive failure of governance. It is a reminder that corporate “rights”,  trade deals, and profits are more important than our health and our lives.


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