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:

Cuba IV: Rethinking development in a revolutionary situation

“Peace + Friendship = Development”

My time in the Dominican Republic and Mexico had convinced me that most proponents of “development” failed to address the unjust structures in the world, including inequalities that have roots in colonial times. Development needed to be understood (as Gustavo Gutiérrez and others argued) in terms of liberation: a radical transformation of global systems of power and domination.

And so, once I had the opportunity to work among churches in Cuba, I was eager to learn about the practice of development in a revolutionary, socialist society.

In the years after the Cuban government’s rapprochement with organized religion in the early 1990s, some churches and especially their ecumenical agencies made major efforts to contribute to the overall well-being of Cuban society. Cuba was in its “special period” of adjustment to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade and aid partner. Cuban churches drew from their own creativity and resources from their global partners to assist.

Today, church-based development programs include strong emergency response capacity and training to manage small businesses and to produce and conserve food (including urban farming). Such training includes empowerment of vulnerable groups, notably farmers with disabilities and senior citizens.

Juan Carlos Cabrera, Sibanicú, Camagüey: a hearing-impaired participant in the CIC’s project with farmers who have disabilities.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) has long supported a pastoral ministry among people living with disabilities. In recent years, that ministry began to focus on farmers with disabilities. You can hear from some of the families and learn about their work in a video I helped to make with The United Church of Canada in 2019. 

In Cárdenas (near Varadero in Matanzas province), the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has run a “meals-on-wheels” style program for people in need because of age or illness. Support goes beyond delivery of a daily meal, and includes (according to need) provision of clothing, laundry service, house-keeping, medication, and attention to health and hygiene. 

Much of the food used in that program (and in schools and hospitals around Cárdenas) is produced at CCRD’s 32-hectare farm, El Retiro. It is also a place for training of farmers in the area. You can read more about the farm and about agriculture in Cuba in an article by Gary Kenny (a friend and former staff colleague at the United Church).

CCRD’s farm: “development means that… everyone has a voice”

In conversations with CCRD staff in March 2018, the word “development” kept coming up. I asked them what the concept meant to them. At first, they did what I sometimes do: add an adjective (“community development” or “participatory development”) or an object (“development of capacities”). Eventually, they said: “that everyone has a voice.” And: “Participation means the extent to which people can participate in community, as persons; to express themselves, with their collective and individual interests.” 

In practical terms, that means holding fast to a vision of the common good that embraces all—even as the Cuban government opens the economy to small business initiatives. Tourists already know independent restaurants (paladares) and bed-and-breakfast places (casas particulares). But now there are beauticians, repair shops, and designers of fashion and everything else. In Cuba, they are called cuentapropistas: people who work on their “own account.”

At the same time, the government also encourages people to take up farming. But the new farmers need training in everything from bookkeeping to organic farming practice. This work is carried out in a decentralized way by the CIC together with CCRD and various NGOs and state agencies. Challenges include lack of machinery; ecological awareness; impacts of climate change (drought, hurricanes); market distortions (some hotels buy directly from farmers, bypassing public systems intended to ensure food security for all); and the risk of introduction of GM seeds. 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ areas of work.

As market systems evolve and while holding fast to that vision of the common good, CIC and CCRD are taking up concepts of “social and solidarity economies” and structures of cooperatives (as opposed to individual or competitive initiatives). These are not top-down programs, but initiatives hatched in networks across the country. The idea is to get people with different interests matched up with people who have capacity and experience within the same area, working with municipalities, churches and other non-governmental organizations. The networks come together without money for projects, but proposals can emerge from their work—which is what happened with the effort to support farmers with disabilities.

In Cuba and beyond, debates continue about development. We may have “sustainable development goals,” but does the practice change? Are we transforming systems and practicing liberation?

From their experience, Cuban church leaders and theologians contribute to the global ecumenical conversation that unfolds in the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance of 135 faith-based development and relief agencies.

In December 2010, Reinerio Arce (a former CIC president who was then serving as rector of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas) called for what he called “prophetic diakonia.” (Diakonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to service—every kind of service: helping people, serving at tables, and offering leadership in faith communities.)

“In our country the churches are playing a more active role serving the people in need at this moment when our economy is shifting increasingly; we need to build capacity for this task,” he said an interview with the WCC news service.

“God sends us out in mission to bring the good news to the poor and oppressed, in word and in deed. Faithful to this call, we try to serve human needs, focusing on the marginalized, the ‘least of these,’ not only by comforting them but also by addressing the root causes of their pain, sorrow and shortages. This ministry of prophetic diakonia seeks to confront the powers of this world that lead to violence, exclusion, death and destruction, and it calls for the transformation of unjust structures and practices into God’s kingdom of justice, with fullness of life for all and for creation.” 

In Matanzas on Oct. 4, 2016, we watched on TV (left) as Hurricane Matthew crossed southwest Haiti before moving on to eastern Cuba. Three days later, I joined CIC staff as they continued their emergency response (right), including provision of shelter in churches.

In Afghanistan, Colombia and everywhere, we must all become artisans of peace

A banner at the June 2010 protests against the fenced-off meetings of the G8/G20 in downtown Toronto. Photo: Jim Hodgson

While I was working to improve my French in Ottawa decades ago, I occasionally attended Mass in francophone parishes. One Sunday, this line got my attention: « Heureux les artisans de la paix… » (Mt 5:9, Jérusalem). Instead of “blessed are the peace-makers,” the text said “artisans of peace.” I love that. It implies arduous, loving work that will produce something both beautiful and useful.

As Taliban fighters move on to Kabul, and the rights of women and girls are again threatened, I feel anguish for all who have died, those who will die, and for all the lives ruined in this ill-conceived war. 

And I have to say: the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks should and could have been managed differently.

In 2001, Sept. 11 was a Tuesday. On Friday that week, I had lunch in a Toronto restaurant with Central American friends who had worked their whole lives for justice and peace and lost family members in the struggle. TV screens were showing the interfaith service underway at U.S. National Cathedral in Washington.

Led by President George W. Bush and evangelist Billy Graham, the service left me scandalized—discourse about enemies, not a word about love or peace—and feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of the war that everyone knew would follow. U.S. Navy Chanters at beginning and end. The closing hymn was The Battle Hymn of the Republic—“Glory, glory, hallelujah… His truth is marching on… terrible swift sword”—giving Christian blessing to the war. Then a benediction, that we might bear the days to come with strength. The recessional included the tolling of a bell and the colours of the various military services being removed. The political and military establishment returned to work, to duty. 

And so began the War on Terror, what Bush kept calling a Crusade.

A week later, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) sent letters to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and to members of churches in Canada proposing a different approach.

The dogs of war were howling loudly, so the letters were scarcely noticed at the time. But today, as Taliban troops move closer to Kabul, they are prophetic voices crying in the wilderness (John 1:23). Their relevance today is in their warning against imperialist adventures and articulation of alternative approaches. These are lessons the world still needs to learn.

First, the letters insisted that perpetrators of terrorist crimes must be brought to justice, and that due legal processes must be followed. To the Prime Minister, the CCC said: “We acknowledge that in international relations due process is not always clear, but we remind you that the United Nations and its Security Council are the essential custodians of international due process.” 

The letters acknowledged global interdependence. The letter to church members said: “Whatever action is taken must fully acknowledge that we live in an interdependent world. It is no longer possible to believe that we can live in an island of fortified safety in an otherwise unsafe world.” It added:

“Co-operative international efforts to prevent terrorism must be supplemented by co- operation in developing a broad range of agreements that provide for the security of all. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, legal limits on small arms possession and transfers, and other international mechanisms are vital building blocks for a world community that cares for the security and safety of all of its citizens.”

The letters deplored the targeting of people of other faiths. “We therefore encourage Christians throughout Canada to join together with people of other faiths to offer solidarity and courage. Above all let us find a common voice in calling for security and safety for all the world’s people.”

The letters encouraged attention to root causes and a “justice and peace” perspective in the face of terrorist actions:

“It is not morally or spiritually acceptable to speak lightly of war. A campaign against terrorism is necessary, but only in the context of a broader commitment to justice. In the past, a single-minded campaign against communism in Afghanistan helped create conditions of terror in Afghanistan, including support to the now accused Osama bin Laden; it spawned the Taliban; and it contributed to enormous instability in Pakistan. So also an unthinking military campaign against terrorism could have immense unforeseen consequences if not guided by due processes of law, appropriate limits to force, and pursuit of justice for all.”

The letter to the Prime Minister was signed by: Janet Somerville, the CCC general secretary (and one of my former editors at Catholic New Times); Ernie Regher, the director of Project Ploughshares; David Pfrimmer, chair of the CCC’s justice and peace commission; and Bishop André Vallée, CCC president.

Instead of complex, long-term strategies of peace-making, a war strategy was followed: defeat the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network militarily and rebuild core institutions of the Afghan state. But the United States and its NATO allies failed to destroy either group, or to secure and stabilize Afghanistan. 

In April 2002, President Bush announced a version of the post-World-War-II “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, promising substantial financial aid. But development efforts were under-funded and U.S. attention shifted to that other perceived enemy: Iraq. 

What was needed in Afghanistan was not war, but a long, slow process of engagement, dialogue, community development, facilitation of victim-offender reconciliation: solidarity instead of imperial interference. You don’t have to like the Taliban to begin a conversation—but that might not have been the starting point anyway. It’s pretty clear that people in Saudi Arabia—a key U.S. ally and supplier of oil—bankroll the Taliban, al-Quaida and factions in Pakistan, promoting a fundamentalist version of Islam that is not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. 

Inter-religious dialogue has a role here too. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports the G20 Interfaith Forum, an event usually held just ahead of G20 meetings to look at issues of religion and sustainable development. It may be uncomfortable for their representatives to listen to people like me talking about LGBTI rights in a conversation about religious freedom, but from such encounters over time, change happens. And the United States needs to develop more honest relationships with its “allies” like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, engaging them on human rights, knowing that change won’t happen immediately but over time. Looking the other way doesn’t help Afghans or anyone else.

This week, I have been reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, And the Mountains Echoed. Like his earlier novel, The Kite Runner, he sweeps across Afghan history and geography. On page 127, he writes of war, wars, “many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, wars with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain.”

We must all become artisans of peace.