Debt, vaccines, climate: from “blah-blah” to meaningful change on a global scale

This year, global network of organisations (including KAIROS Canada) sponsored Global Days of Action for Justice and Debt Cancellation during the last two weeks of October to focus attention on the intersections of debt, climate and pandemic.

In the wake of G20 summit in Rome and as the global climate meeting in Glasgow gets underway, those of us who hold out hope for an international system that can produce meaningful change are disappointed by failures both on debt cancellation and vaccine distribution—and working for better results on climate issues.

“Political games while the world burns” was the assessment by the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) after the annual meetings Oct. 11-17 of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Back in April 2020, when pandemic lockdowns still were a novelty, the G20 announced a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI). But the Jubilee Debt Campaign says that the DSSI has suspended less than a quarter of debt payments for a very limited group of 46 countries.

Tim Jones, Head of Policy at Jubilee Debt Campaign, said: “The failure to make banks, hedge funds and oil traders take part in the G20’s flagship debt suspension scheme has made a mockery of this initiative. Tens of billions of dollars have flooded out of lower income countries at a time when they were desperately needed to protect lives and livelihoods.”

The campaign also cited research showing that 34 countries spend five times more on debt payments than climate change mitigation or adaptation.

Vaccine sharing

Meanwhile, about 82 countries cannot meet the World Health Organization (WHO) target of 40 per cent Covid-19 vaccination coverage by end of the current year. The global vaccine-sharing arrangement known as COVAX has delivered only about 400 million doses to about 140 low- and middle-income countries.

On Oct. 28, WHO and other aid groups called on the G20 to fund a new, a U.S. $23.4 billion plan to bring vaccines, tests and drugs to impoverished countries in the next year.

During the G20 summit in Rome two days later, Canada announced it will donate 10 million Moderna vaccines and deliver 200 million doses by the end of next year. The new promise comes despite abject failure of the last set of promises: Canada delivered only 3 million doses out of a planned 40.7 million does announced at the G7 summit last June.

On average, the G20 countries have vaccinated about 55 per cent of their eligible populations, reported The Globe and Mail. Globally, the figure is 38 per cent, and in Africa, only seven per cent.

Today in La Jornada, Mexico City: Headlines acknowledge an agreement to impose a 15-per-cent global tax on transnational corporations and new promises to donate vaccines. Photos show protests. Carrying signs that condemned “profiting from the pandemic” (left), protesters in Rome drew attention to vaccine nationalism and called for an end to patent protection for vaccines: “a global right.” And (right) protesting economic policies of the Italian government and G20.

Sharing costs of climate change

A day before being shuffled out his job as Canada’s environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson joined German and British counterparts in a news conference Oct. 25 to announce “significant progress” in getting commitments from rich countries to boost financing for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the developing world. 

At the Copenhagen summit 12 years ago, wealthy countries pledged channel U.S. $100 billion each year to fund this effort. That level was never achieved.

The plan announced by Wilkinson, together with Germany’s Jochen Flasbarth and the U.K.’s Alok Sharma—the COP26 president-designate—would see U.S. $500 billion flow over the five years 2021-25.

Access to climate finance has been a critical issue for many developing countries, and failure to meet past goals had become “a matter of trust,” the ministers said.

A report posted on the COP26 presidency’s website does not show the commitments of individual countries, noting, for example, that the Biden administration in Washington “will work closely with Congress” to achieve U.S. commitments.Moreover, about 70 per cent of the funds would be in the form of loans, not grants, and part of the funding would come too from the private sector.


Equitable financing—based on recognition that the wealthy countries foster an economic system that uses carbon-intensive technology to exploit of the planet’s resources—is part of the challenge everyone on the planet faces as the Glasgow COP gets underway.

But underlying the struggles over who pays is the issue of holding to the 2015 Paris commitment to limit the carbon-induced temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. As “environmental icon” David Suzuki said on CBC Radio this morning, if we love our children and grand-children—and if we love participating with all of this planet’s life and generosity—we’ll stop adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Many of Canada’s faith-based organizations have come together in an initiative called For the Love of Creation to mobilize education, reflection, action and advocacy for climate justice. The United Church of Canada has shared its accredited status at the COP with other members, and together they formed an ecumenical delegation to work “virtually” at the summit. You can follow the delegation’s activities at COP26 by following #FLCCOP26, #UCCanCOP26 on Facebook and Instagram.

Vaccine equity: Release the patents!

For those of us concerned about global vaccine equity—“none of us is safe until we’re all safe,” the politicians keep saying—there was good news and bad news over the weekend.

Good news is that Pope Francis lent his powerful voice to those calling for fair access. “In the name of God,” he said Saturday to a world gathering of social movements, “I ask all the great pharmaceutical laboratories to release the patents. Make a gesture of humanity and allow every country, every people, every human being, to have access to the vaccines. There are countries where only three or four per cent of the inhabitants have been vaccinated.”

Bad news is that the World Trade Organization has again failed to agree to suspend intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. MoneyControl, a Mumbai-based financial news site, reported that further action on the patent waiver may not come until December, when trade ministers of all WTO member states will meet.

The WTO’s failure last week to “liberate” the COVID vaccines from patent protection was front page news in Mexico City, but got limited attention in English-language media.

More than 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, have demanded a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccine manufacturers. Such a waiver would suspend certain parts of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) so that vaccines and testing technology for COVID-19 could be easily shared. It was the WTO’s “TRIPS Council” that failed to make any progress during meetings Oct. 13-14.

The WTO works by consensus: all 164 member states must agree to any change. MoneyControl said the lack of progress is due to opposition from the European Union and a handful of other rich countries, including Switzerland, Norway and the United Kingdom. “They have been emboldened by a noncommittal United States, despite the support of almost all WTO member nations. Since all WTO decisions have to be unanimous, there is nothing that can be done even if a single nation is unwilling,” a senior trade negotiator said. U.S. President Joe Biden said May 5 that he supported the waiver.

“AIDS drugs for every nation” was one of the cries heard at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006. Photo: Jim Hodgson  

I have written about this issue before and, indeed, the current fight to overcome the big pharmaceutical companies’ patent “rights” is an echo of the struggles in the first years of the new millennium to win access to antiretrovirals and other HIV and AIDS medications.  

Then as now, Canada has refused to support the TRIPS waiver. In May, 75 MPs from all parties sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in support of the COVID vaccine waiver. 

On Oct. 14, Vancouver MP Don Davies of the New Democratic Party spoke again about the struggle for vaccine equity. “We’ve seen the incredible impact that vaccines have had in the fight against COVID-19 in developed countries, and much of the research for COVID vaccines has been publicly funded,” he said.

“Yet many countries in the developing world have been unable to access vaccines due to global patent regulations. This is unacceptable not just from a humanitarian standpoint, but also a practical one, as we know that without a coordinated global vaccination effort, new COVID-19 variants will continue to develop.” 

Medical Xpress reports that COVID vaccination rates are on average 30 times higher in wealthier countries than in impoverished ones. For medical reasons, some countries are now rolling out third doses of vaccines while billions of people have yet to get access to a first dose.

The WTO director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said the gap in vaccination rates between the haves and the have-nots was “devastating for the lives and livelihoods of Africans” and “morally unacceptable.”

Pope Francis took up the vaccine equity issue in the context of the fourth in a series of world gatherings of social movements. He said he would be a “pest”—“pedigüino,” in Spanish: one who asks too many questions—on vaccines, mining companies, debt cancellation and other issues. His calls:

Finding hope in Canada’s election, the UN General Assembly and CELAC

The concurrence this week of a federal election in Canada with the spurt of diplomatic action around the United Nations General Assembly reminds me that I value political debate, and that the world needs urgent action on multiple, related issues.

What we have in Canada is what Marta Harnecker and others have called “polyarchy”—the alternation of power among elites, or the choice from among the elites of whom we wish to govern us for the next few years. And no: we should not be satisfied with that, but rather build toward a system that ensures that everyone can have a meaningful sense of participation in the social, economic and political decisions that most affect their lives. That means having societies and governments that are strong enough to control the worst excesses of capitalism and flexible enough to embrace diversity.

Monday night, Sept. 20 – Liberal minority government projected.

But, in Canada for the moment, we have what we have. Perhaps the most optimistic view is that some sort of new coalition among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens will be strong enough to achieve solid measures to limit climate change, advance justice for Indigenous peoples, promote a global recovery from the pandemic, and quick action on housing and child care.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, world leaders appeared at the General Assembly podium or via video link. Some emphasized the UN Charter, with its affirmations of national sovereignty and self-determination, and (rightly) criticized the sanctions applied by powerful states against the more vulnerable. Others promised new action to try to enforce their version of a rules-based international order (that is: the corporate-led, neo-liberal one).

Again, amidst the contradictions, one has to look for signs of hope. U.S. President Joe Biden, beset by divisions in his own party and fallout from his border patrol’s gross mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, promised “relentless diplomacy” (an improvement, I hope, from “endless war”).

Biden held two online summits: one to try to advance action on climate goals, and the other to advance action on Covid vaccines—including the urgent need for a waiver that would allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines. Biden promised a new contribution of 500 million doses to the global effort, raising the U.S. commitment to 1.1 billion doses. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Biden’s pandemic summit, promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing program, by the end of next year. Critics say the contributions are insufficient.

Participants in the CELAC summit, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Sept. 18.

Monroísmo vs Bolivarianismo

A few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for a summit in Mexico City, in part, at least to strengthen the forum as a counter-weight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro proposed replacing the “Monroe Doctrine” (promoted by the early 19th century U.S. President James Monroe—”America for the Americans,” meaning the United States and reflected today in the actions of the OAS) with a “Bolivarian Doctrine” that would uphold both the unity and the autonomy of the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, with CELAC as a space for common action.

Brazil and Colombia (led by the region’s two most conservative presidents) stayed away, but others either came or sent representatives. There were flare-ups over different approaches to human rights protection and economic policy, but in the end, the leaders issued a common declaration and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Érika Mouynes (left), Panamá’s foreign minister, noted that she was just one of three women at the CELAC table. Claude Joseph (right), Haiti’s foreign minister, met outside the meeting with Mexico’s immigration service to express concern for Haitian migrants in Mexico.