June 3, 2021
The surging Covid-19 crisis in India is impossible to ignore, even as the US, Britain, and even European Union countries are once again opening up after the pandemic. Ironically, India is also home to some the world’s largest manufacturers of vaccines, so how is it possible that even now as the US races to reach 70% of the population vaccinated, only 2% of India is vaccinated, and a city the size and density of Mumbai, is only at 15%?
This question comes up regularly in the weekly conversations with ACORN’s team of organizers in India. How could it not? We were scheduled to meet in the Maldives to make a plan for the year in March, but then had to get ticket refunds when the surge overwhelmed India potentially forcing quarantines for weeks on both sides of any visit. We got closer to an understanding this week, when ACORN’s director in Mumbai, Vinod Shetty, shared a paper his wife, Sandhya Srinivasan, editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, had written with a colleague, Mohan Rao, of the Nehru University in New Delhi. The essay, “Why India’s Vaccine Companies are Profiteering in the Pandemic” in the Economic & Political Weekly, makes it clear that is another horror story of neoliberalism, pushed by international foundations favoring private profits over public production, and caring nothing about the death count that could be millions in this country of over 1.1 billion people.
Over the last twenty years, under the prodding, donations, and investments led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, India moved away from public production of vaccines and the price controls that come with a public good, to private production and biotech research. This movement, abetted by government inaction and outright support, of what the authors called “philanthro-capitalism” has had the effect of creating giant Indian drug companies like Serum Institute of India (SII) and Bharat Biotech. In turn, these companies now can set the prices, as they wish, regardless of ability to pay in a country like India, yielding billions from such profiteering. Even in the United States, where health care is dominated by the private sector, vaccines are seen as a public good with government involvement, but the Indian government allowed this takeover. Now, unwilling to learn from the disastrous bidding war for vaccines between Western countries whether Canada, the US, Britain, or the European Union bloc, the government is transferring the drug purchasing to the Indian states, creating a similar bidding war, which will also multiply the profits of the private companies.
International workers in public health have long been critical of the Gates operation for its single-minded focus on cures for a small number of diseases and lack of interest in prevention or root causes. Now with the Gates divorce, some of these critiques, especially of their philanthro-capitalism and the harm exposed now in the pandemic and long feared by experts, are becoming public.
Will lessons be learned? Maybe yes, but likely, no, because too many dance to the piper, when money is on the table. Will there be any accountability in India or internationally for the death count they have now wrought? Maybe, but probably not, heaping more tragedy on top of an already mountainous pile.