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:

Pope Francis apologized to the people of Mexico, and conservatives in Spain are furious

While Indigenous people in the northern part of this continent await an apology from Pope Francis for abuse suffered in church-run residential schools (next steps to come after a series of conversations in Rome in December), the Pope apologized to the people of Mexico for the violence committed by Spanish conquerors during the colonization and evangelization of the Americas.

In March 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had written to King Felipe of Spain and Pope Francis, urging them to apologise for the “abuses” of colonialism and the conquest. (This year, Mexico has been marking the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán, to the conquistadores, and the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain.)

The apology by Pope Francis to the people of Mexico came in response to the letter from López Obrador. While it was made public Sept. 27 by the Mexican bishops conference, it was dated Sept. 16 and issued from Basilica of St. John Lateran—the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome.

In 1511, Diego Colón, governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, was furious when a young priest denounced land-owners and colonial authorities for their treatment of the Taíno Indigenous people. Contemporary Spanish politicians (among them Isabel Díaz Ayuso and José María Aznar) were similarly angered by Pope Francis’s recent apology to the people of Mexico.

The apology, received calmly in Mexico, set off a furor among conservative politicians in Spain. 

José María Aznar, a former president of the Spanish government, made a series of racist jokes about López Obrador during a meeting in Seville of his Partido Popular. Another prominent PP politician, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of the Madrid regional government, told a U.S. audience that Spain had brought to Latin America nothing but “freedom, prosperity, peace, understanding.” Spain’s socialist government had earlier dismissed the call for an apology, saying “the arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”

The Spanish reactions brought to mind the fury of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo when, in December 1511, a young priest denounced the crimes of the land-owners and colonial authorities against the Taíno Indigenous nation.

A large statue of Antonio de Montesinos delivering his sermon faces the Caribbean Sea in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The stone and bronze statue is 15 metres tall and was designed by Mexican sculptor Antonio Castellanos. It was donated to the Dominican people by the Mexican government and inaugurated in 1982 by the presidents of Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Photo: Jim Hodgson
A Robert Lentz icon of Bartolomé de Las Casas adorns the cover of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s biography.

Leaders of the Dominican religious order in Santo Domingo had chosen Antón Montesino (more commonly referred to now as Antonio de Montesinos), to deliver a message to land-owners and the colonial authorities. By then, the leaders of the Taíno people had already been killed. Tens of thousands more died from famine and disease. 

Drawing from gospel descriptions of St. John the Baptist (John 1:19b-28), Montesino spoke: 

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island… Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labours, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?… Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” 

The young priest’s words sparked immediate anger. In the congregation that day was Diego Colón, the island’s governor and son of Christopher Columbus. Montesino could barely complete the celebration of Mass. Later in the day, Colón led a delegation to a meeting with the Dominican superior, Pedro de Córdoba, who told him the sermon was the responsibility of the entire community. 

A week later, on Dec. 28, Montesino preached again on the same themes. This time, Colón and others sent their protests to King Ferdinand V in Madrid. Over subsequent years, priests were recalled, studies were carried out, promises were made and broken—and the Taíno people continued to die. Worse, the colonial enterprise, based on slavery and ruthless exploitation, expanded throughout the hemisphere. By the time Hernán Cortés headed for Mexico and new genocides in 1519, between 80 and 90 per cent of the Taíno population on Hispaniola had died, and the pattern was being repeated in Cuba and Puerto Rico. 

Also present for Montesino’s homilies was a young priest who was also a land-owner, Bartolomé de Las Casas. As became his practice over the next 55 years, he wrote everything down. 

The Montesino sermon was a turning point for Las Casas. He came to see that Jesus Christ was being crucified again in the slaughter of the Indigenous people. He joined the Dominicans and dedicated his life to challenging the church and the Spanish empire of his day. In 1543, he was named bishop of Chiapas, but only spent about six months there before opposition from colonial land-owners forced him to carry his struggle to defend the Indigenous people to Rome and Madrid. 

Much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce slavery, particularly that of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first publication in Spanish of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, the book that opened the door to subsequent decades of writing theology from the context—the ways people practice their faith in their real lives. 

In Las Casas, Gutiérrez found a model leader and writer who bore faithful witness to the struggles of his time. Gutiérrez wrote a lively biography: Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993).

Cuba VI – James Baldwin, racism, imperialism and ourselves

In the 2010 interview when Fidel Castro apologized to gay Cubans for his government’s treatment of them in the 1960s, he asked, “Why hate the United States, if it is only a product of history?”

At the same time, we need to name what is going on. For the sake of describing the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and also economic, political and military power exercised in the world today, sometimes we talk about “Empire.” But there are moments, such as in discussions of Cuba (or in the wake of 20 years of war in Afghanistan), when we need to be more direct, and talk about imperialism: coercion and force used by stronger states against less advantaged peoples.

James Baldwin: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

For the gay African-American writer James Baldwin (1924-87), the way that the United States behaved abroad was tied to racism and homophobia at home. In an essay on Baldwin, the Indian writer and academic Prakash Kona wrote

“In sustaining the hegemony of powerful global elites who serve as engine for corporate capitalism America is guilty of keeping alive the notion of a civilization obsessed with its own sense of racial, moral and political superiority.”

To make his argument, Kona drew on Baldwin’s reflections on “American innocence” — “an innocence trapped in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions” that for Kona is most “clearly revealed than in their foreign policy in the third world.” That particular quality of “American innocence” is demonstrated perfectly by Dick Cavett in a question to Baldwin that opens Raoul Peck’s brilliant film, I am not your Negro (2016, currently streaming here). 

Peck again took up Baldwin’s themes in an essay in The Atlantic in 2000, saying that the people of the United States need to heed Baldwin’s words:

Why can’t we understand, as Baldwin did and demonstrated throughout his life, that racism is not a sickness, nor a virus, but rather the ugly child of an economic system that produces inequalities and injustice? The history of racism is parallel to the history of capitalism. The law of the market, the battle for profit, the imbalance of power between those who have all and those who have nothing are part of the foundation of this macabre play. He spoke about this not-so-hidden infrastructure again and again:

“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” And more pointedly: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Cuba holds firm

While many other attempts to break free of U.S. hegemony over the Americas have been suppressed (Dominican Republic in 1963 and 1965; Chile in 1973; Honduras in 2009—to mention only a few examples) and others are under siege (Venezuela today), Cuba holds firm.

Yesterday (Sept. 16), Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcomed his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to events marking the 211th anniversary of the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence.
“I have said and I repeat: we can be in agreement or not with the Cuban Revolution and with its government, but to have resisted for 62 years without submission is an indisputable historical feat.”  Texts of their speeches (in Spanish).

Many of us from the global North get involved in the global South out of a partly-formed sense of solidarity or misguided charity. We only start to think about imperialism when we see that our goals of social justice or an end to poverty are blocked outright by U.S. imperialism (the history of invasions and coups) or by systemic oppression and exploitation (debt, banking and trade rules, etc.). Social movements find that their way towards liberation is blocked by systems imposed from the richer, Northern countries.

Their starting point in Latin America was usually the problem Gustavo Gutiérrez described: poverty—and then what to do about it. My starting point has been among various expressions of liberation theology, social gospel or the preferential option for the poor, and aligning myself with similarly-inspired actions. Hence my support for political options like those taken in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and most recently (and still tentatively) Peru, and movements like the MST (landless people) in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. Those movements may not set out to be anti-imperialist, but to the extent that they are opposed by capitalism and its proponents, they must become anti-imperialist.

Gail Walker (left) of Pastors for Peace speaks to a gathering at College Street United Church in Toronto in July 2018.

By way of conclusion, some ways to connect with others who work in solidarity with people in Cuba.

Pastors for Peace and the larger coalition of which it is part, the Intereligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), are based in New York City and led mostly by African-American and Latinx people. P4P has done a superb job of undercutting the US blockade of Cuba by simply breaking it: people go to Cuba in caravans, provide aid, and support US students to study medicine in Cuba. You can join their mailing list here for updates on Cuba.

In Canada, there are a variety of solidarity networks, including the Canadian Network on Cuba and the Canadian-Cuban Solidarity Association (CCFA) that promote friendship and share information. CUBAbility, a Toronto-based group, sends musical instruments and other aid. Some churches (notably The United Church of Canada) and trade unions work with partners in Cuba.