After UN Security Council calls for vaccine equity, WHO pushes for action on patents

In a rare show of unanimity, the UN Security Council approved a resolution Feb. 26 that encouraged Covid-19 vaccine equity and called for a “sustained humanitarian pause” to local conflicts.

Speaking with journalists afterwards, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Ghebreyesus argued that more could be done.

“I understand full well that all governments have an obligation to protect their own people. But the best way to do that is by suppressing the virus everywhere at the same time,” said Ghebreyesus.

“Now is the time to use every tool to scale up production, including licensing and technology transfer, and where necessary, intellectual property waivers. If not now, then when?”

The WHO leader’s words add weight to calls inside the World Trade Organisation (WTO)—calls that are already supported by about 100 countries—for a waiver from certain provisions of patent rules to allow greater production of vaccines. 

Given that Canada is not yet among the countries supporting the waivers, Canadians are invited to sign a petition to the House of Commons in support of the proposal.

Together with calls within the G20 nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release $3 trillion of global reserve funds (“Special Drawing Rights”) to support crisis response and recovery efforts in developing countries, action in the WTO on patents represent the two largest challenges to “standard operating procedures” in the IMF and WTO seen in many years.

We’ve done this before

These systems have been challenged before. In the IMF’s case, it was the demand for debt relief by so-called “highly-indebted poor countries” in the 1980s and 1990s that inspired massive Jubilee campaigns in many countries, including Canada. Now, more than 215 groups from around the world have sent an open letter to G20 Finance Ministers and the IMF calling for a quick allocation of global reserve funds – Special Drawing Rights – to support developing countries’ global coronavirus crisis responses and recovery efforts.

“Stop AIDS! Keep The Promise!” was the cry outside the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006. (Jim Hodgson photo)

With the WTO, it was the need to ease patent protection so as to produce less costly generic versions of medicines used to treat HIV and AIDS. Again, efforts were broadly supported by churches and NGOs around the world. Eventually, in at least partial responses, less-costly generics and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria helped save lives in many countries.

Vaccine Equity

The WHO has long called upon rich countries to ensure that vaccines are shared equitably. The global organisation is one of the leaders of COVAX, a program that aims to supply 1.3 billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries this year. But so far, COVAX has had a slow roll-out.

The British-drafted resolution in the Security Council, co-sponsored by 112 countries, recognized the importance of extensive use of vaccines in this pandemic time as a “global public good for health.” It emphasised the need to develop international partnerships to scale-up manufacturing and distribution capacities.

Further, the Council requested the Secretary-General to provide a full assessment of the impediments to vaccine access in the pandemic response. It said it would review situations brought to its attention by the Secretary-General where hostilities and armed group activities are impeding COVID‑19 vaccination and to consider what further measures may be necessary to ensure such impediments are removed, and hostilities paused to enable vaccination.

It emphasized the urgent need for “solidarity, equity and efficacy,” inviting donation of vaccine doses from developed economies and all those in a position to do so to low- and middle-income countries and other countries in need, particularly through the COVAX facility.

These are complex initiatives but they—together with action for patent and debt relief, and additional funds for vaccines and other public health need—are essential for overcoming the global pandemic and for the reconstruction that will follow.

People in Canada are also invited to sign a petition to ensure full access to Covid-19 vaccines by all migrants regardless of immigration status. See the Vaccines For All petition here.

Sanctions on countries like North Korea and Venezuela hurt more than they help

At the end of 2020, a United Church of Canada magazine, Mandate, published an article that I wrote about the impact of sanctions in Venezuela and North Korea. The text follows after the photo below. Read or download a PDF copy here.

Since then, more voices have joined the call on governments and the United Nations to ease up on use of sanctions because of humanitarian consequences for ordinary people in sanctioned countries. 

  • Pope Francis appealed to governments to relax sanctions on various countries. “In various cases, humanitarian crises are aggravated by economic sanctions, which, more often than not, affect mainly the more vulnerable segments of the population rather than political leaders,” he told the Vatican’s diplomatic corps on Feb. 8. “While understanding the reasons for imposing sanctions, the Holy See does not view them as effective, and hopes that they will be relaxed, not least to improve the flow of humanitarian aid, especially medicines and healthcare equipment, so very necessary in this time of pandemic.”
  • On Feb. 12, at the end of a two-week visit to Venezuela, a United Nations human rights expert urged an end to unilateral sanctions against Venezuela. Alena Douhan, the UN Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights, said the sanctions have exacerbated pre-existing calamities. “Humanitarian exemptions are lengthy, costly, ineffective and inefficient,” she said as she shared her preliminary report. Douhan’s final report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September.
  • In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that U.S. sanctions likely exacerbated Venezuela’s economic decline and that that more can be done to remove obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
A clerk in a subsidized bakery in Caracas (May 2019).

Sanctioned Ignorance: International sanctions in countries like North Korea and Venezuela hurt more than help

When I became involved in movements for global justice in the 1980s, economic and political sanctions were viewed as tools of liberation. They were a potential means to end colonial rule and, in the South African context, apartheid.

Today, sanctions are most often used by rich and powerful countries to pressure smaller states. Food and medicine are supposed to be exempt from sanctions, but banks block payments and transport companies won’t carry the goods out of fear of contravening the rules. Thus, Venezuela can’t buy wheat from Canada, fertilizers from Colombia, or insulin from Germany. North Korea can’t buy X-ray machines or finish building a hospital because it is prohibited from buying metals abroad. 

Since 2018, the United Church of Canada and a handful of other organizations have pressed the Government of Canada and the United Nations to ease up on use of sanctions because of unintended humanitarian consequences for ordinary people in sanctioned countries. For the United Church, these calls are rooted in the United Church’s practice of partnership, and often in its mission history—in the case of North Korea—or in wider ecumenical action—as with Venezuela. 

In 1998, two years before I joined the United Church staff as its Latin America-Caribbean partnership coordinator, Venezuelans chose Hugo Chávez to be their new president. Chávez began turning the country’s oil revenue to serve of the country’s impoverished majority by focusing on housing, health care, and education. In 2000, the people of the United States chose George Bush to be their new president, who in 2002, would refer to North Korea, together with Iraq and Iran, as part of the “Axis of Evil.” The stage was set for confrontations that reverberate today. 

Sanctions harm the vulnerable in North Korea

For Patti Talbot, the United Church’s north–east Asia partnership coordinator, the connection between The United Church of Canada and its partners in Korea—North and South—is deeply felt. It dates back to 1898 when Canadian Presbyterians established a mission in the northern port city of Wonsan, in what is now the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea.

“The Canadian mission action combined a concern with the well-being of the person and the soul, the physical and the spiritual,” says Talbot. “Attention focused on people who were left out of traditional structures: education for women and girls, for example.” Church planting, she adds, went on in ways that developed Korean leadership and capacity building. Missionaries demonstrated respect for the Korean language and culture, particularly during the Japanese colonial period when the Korean people were brutally suppressed.

But “liberation” from the Japanese, with the end of World War Two in 1945, saw the division of the Korean peninsula between Soviet-led forces in the north and U.S.-led forces in south. The subsequent Korean War in the early 1950s was one of many proxy wars carried out between the Soviet Union and the United States and their allies as well as a civil war that pitted Koreans against each other. Many Christians fled to the south. Today, Koreans on both sides of the border yearn for reconciliation, but hope ebbs and flows depending on forces not at all within their control.

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw gradual opening as Cold War tensions eased. The Korean Christian Federation, a body representing North Korean Protestant Christians, was able to connect with the World Council of Churches, the United Church, and others. The Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) implemented a food aid program during and after a serious famine. Canada established diplomatic relations in 2001.

When more conservative governments came to power in Washington and Seoul in the early 2000s, official collaboration and dialogue with the DPRK dwindled. In 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. While this may have been a sort of bargaining chip to renew talks about demilitarization of the whole Korean peninsula, the United Nations Security Council responded by imposing sanctions. These were strengthened several times later over further nuclear tests and ballistic missile activities. Canada imposed its own set of sanctions in 2011.

Severe environmental and climate change–related challenges have led, in recent years, to prolonged dry, hot spells in some areas and major flooding in others.  With international sanctions blocking access to agricultural inputs and tools, and the near complete lockdown response to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity has steadily increased throughout the DPRK.  In early 2020, UN agencies feared widespread undernutrition would threaten an entire generation of children in North Korea, with the growth of one in five children stunted due to chronic undernutrition.

Today, the United Church supports a modest maternal-child nutrition effort led by First Steps Canada, a Vancouver-based organization committed to preventing child malnutrition in the DPRK. Every day, First Steps provides more than 100,000 children with soymilk and 20,000 mothers and their babies with sachets of micro-nutrients in powder form that are added to food. First Steps does the arduous work of seeking exemptions from the sanctions so as to provide the aid. 

And the United Church hopes to work again with CFGB and with Finland’s Lutheran relief organization, Finn Church Aid, to provide food assistance, but the effort is delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The United Church is part of a global effort to press for easing of sanctions against the DPRK, as it becomes increasingly clear sanctions are not achieving the intended goal of denuclearizing North Korea.

“What we bring to this sanctions conversation with other civil society organizations is this history of relationship as well as a moral and ethical objection to the use of sanctions,” says Talbot. “Sanctions do the most harm to those who are already vulnerable. We know that women and children suffer.”

Food distribution from a truck in Caracas (May 2018).

Sanctions are “warfare” in Venezuela

If some good came of all the threats made against Venezuela in recent years—including an attempted coup in April 2019, and a failed invasion by mercenaries in May 2020—it is that the threats seemed to provide new impetus for dialogue and for humanitarian aid.

Until the 2008 global economic crisis, Venezuela was providing more international assistance in Latin America than the United States. Oil was provided at reduced prices or with long-term, low-interest loans to Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and other countries. 

Oil prices collapsed in 2009, rose again between 2012 and 2014, and collapsed in 2015 with no recovery in sight. The United States had shifted to fracking to produce oil domestically, and found it no longer needed Venezuela’s oil. And while it is tempting to blame the arrival of Donald Trump in power at the beginning of 2017 for current problems, relations with the United States worsened in 2015 when the Obama administration declared that Venezuela represented a “security threat” to the United States, and began a series of political and economic measures against Venezuela. Faced with economic hardship derived both from the collapse of the oil industry and the impact of sanctions, several million Venezuelans left for Colombia and other countries.

Inside Venezuela, the government expanded its food distribution program to reach about 60 percent of the population. Gradually, United Nations agencies and the Pan American Health Organization became more involved, along with non-governmental organizations and a network supported by the global ACT Alliance of faith-based relief organizations.

“Sanctions are warfare tied to U.S. policy to provoke regime change,” said Teri Mattson of the U.S. women’s solidarity network Codepink during a visit to Ottawa in November 2019. The strategy doesn’t work, she said, and only seems to result in pushing countries like Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Syria closer together.

Mattson was part of a panel on the unintended humanitarian consequences of sanctions at a forum organized by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC, now called Cooperation Canada). A response to calls for sanctions should always consider who is making the call and who will be most affected by their implementation, she insisted. 

On the same panel, the person responsible for emergency operations of the Canadian Red Cross, Chiran Livera, said there may be good reasons for sanctions, but they should always exempt humanitarian activities. Even when disasters occur, such as the earthquake in Iran in November 2017, transfers of funds for emergency assistance were blocked.

Another speaker, Kee Park, lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, works frequently with doctors in North Korea. “Surgeons are using old scalpels because new ones cannot be obtained,” he said. “I am outraged as a humanitarian aid worker.”  

Park noted the issues of international power—that the U.S. government “has unchecked power, coercive power, and there is no accountability.” Policies can be divergent, he added, and Canada’s relationship with Cuba is an example of what can happen a country chooses a different tack.

Consequences of sanctions panel: Kee Park, Teri Mattson, Chiran Livera and Rachel Vincent, moderator. (Ottawa, November 2019).

Calls for new approaches

For more than 60 years, Canada has defied U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Canada calls its approach to Cuba “constructive engagement,” a model that could be encouraged with other countries. Norway, Mexico and Uruguay are among countries that have persevered in promotion of dialogue as a means to resolve conflict in Venezuela. 

Canada should similarly re-engage with North Korea right now, argued the United Church’s former Moderator, Very Rev. Lois Wilson, in an opinion piece published in the Ottawa Citizen. “If we want peace, we need to help make it happen,” she wrote. “Of course, Canada should maintain its commitments to human rights and to an international system based on rules, but at the same time Canada should re-establish direct communications and re-build official relationships with North Korea.”

Calls for new approaches sharpened as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. “Sanctions that were imposed in the name of delivering human rights are in fact killing people and depriving them of fundamental rights, including the rights to health, to food and to life itself,” said an August statement by five United Nations experts. Water, soap, electricity, fuel, and food, are all in short supply because of sanctions—a situation made more acute because of the global pandemic.

In May, the United Church joined with Mennonite Central Committee Canada and the Nobel Women’s Initiative in telling Canada’s then-foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, to ensure that aid is not blocked by sanctions during the crisis. “We join with others who share a vocation to be peacemakers and a commitment to work for the health and wholeness of the human and created world,” their letter said. “As civil society actors, we have active relationships with partner organizations and friends in Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Gaza, Iran, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe working for a peaceful end to conflict, the creation of conditions for reconciliation and peace, and the provision of basic needs for everyone.”

Their words echoed calls for suspension of sanctions from UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, as well as statements from the ACT Alliance and the U.S. National Council of Churches, among others.

However we conceive of our motivation for justice—social gospel, right relations, preferential option for the poor—we should be suspicious of cures that are worse than the supposed diseases. We can argue over politics in Korea or Venezuela or Iran, and work for change, but sanctions these days hurt more than they help.

First published in Mandate, a magazine of The United Church of Canada, Fall 2020, p.19 ff. Used by permission © The United Church of Canada (2020). Read or download a PDF copy here.

Systemic issues that pandemic recovery efforts fail to address

“Always drink treated water” (Haiti, 2011)

In September 2015, without so much as a look over their shoulders at past development successes and failures, 193 world leaders committed themselves to 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that were intended to achieve three great things over the next 15 years:

  • End extreme poverty
  • Fight inequality and injustice
  • Fix climate change

I support the goals. Who but the most reactionary would not? And I believe that the United Nations is vital for nation-states to work out common approaches to global problems. 

But my experience tells me that governments usually fail to cough up the money required for effective Official Development Assistance (ODA). It also seems to me that extreme poverty, inequality and injustice cannot be eliminated, or climate change fixed, without significant systemic changes to the global economy: the power of transnational corporations and their investors must be curbed.

A bit more than five years later—and a year into the global Covid-19 pandemic—the SDGs are in peril. Worse: good will is evaporating as the wealth gap spreads wider and rich countries grab the vaccines.

By Feb. 10, more than three-quarters of vaccinations had occurred in 10 of the world’s richest countries, while nearly 130 countries had yet to administer a single dose. In January, Oxfam reported the world’s 10 richest men had seen their wealth increase by US$540 billion during the pandemic, “while billions of people are struggling amid the worst job crisis in over 90 years”—a situation, Oxfam said, that seems poised to get worse. “Unless rising inequality is tackled, half a billion more people could be living in poverty on less than $5.50 a day in 2030, than at the start of the pandemic.”

In this context—even while critics like me might argue over details of the SDGs—it was heartening this International Development Week (ending today) to see that Cooperation Canada and its members (development and humanitarian relief agencies) are calling on Canada to increase ODA commitments to ensure a global recovery from the pandemic.

“This is an absolutely critical time. It’s not a time for Canada to be withdrawing from the world. It’s quite the opposite,” said Nicolas Moyer, CEO of Cooperation Canada. Speaking to Radio Canada International, he added: “There are huge pressures not only on global progress but our own values. Democratic values are under threat, human rights are under threat as they haven’t been before.”

Canada should invest at least one per cent of its domestic Covid-19 response in additional international assistance funds in its upcoming 2021 federal budget and years to come, Moyer said. Cooperation Canada’s recent report, In This Together: A Case for Canada’s Global Engagement, details the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable people around the world.

Canada’s contribution to international assistance of $6.2 billion in 2018-19 is equivalent to just 0.27 per cent of the gross national income (GNI), well below international commitment of 0.7 per cent—and below the contributions of peer countries.

Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $865 million for vaccine purchases and Covid-19 treatments in low- and middle-income countries. He also gave International Development Minister Karina Gould a renewed mandate to do more to support developing countries “on their economic recoveries and resilience.”

In December, Gould announced a $485-million increase in Canada’s $5.9-billion overseas development assistance budget. The money was earmarked for new international efforts to ensure the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to poor countries.

She added that Canada “would absolutely be donating any excess capacity” of vaccines to poorer countries. But vaccines alone won’t heal the damages of the pandemic which, in less than a year, erased a decade of progress in improving the livelihoods of the world’s most impoverished people, especially children.

“What we’re talking about in international development is a decade of lost gains,” Gould said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Canada is also one of the top donors to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) Facility. The COVAX program is aiming to provide 1.3 billion vaccine doses to 92 lower-income countries by the end of this year. But it remains underfunded and is still seeking billions of dollars to meet its goals, the Globe and Mail reported Feb. 3.

Canada is also supporting the Global Fund work to overcome Covid-19 with testing kits and reinforced health systems, while sustaining gains made against HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

But here’s where we come to those tough, systemic issues that SDGs and current pandemic efforts fail to address. Patent rules need to be relaxed. Most of the new vaccines were developed and produced after heavy infusions of public subsidies, and those big companies are holding tight to their patents.

This happened too in the struggle to provide HIV and AIDS treatments globally. After years of pressure (including the Beads of Hope advocacy campaign of The United Church of Canada in the early 2000s), less-costly generics and the Global Fund eventually helped save lives.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is among those who are calling for “cooperation from the pharmaceutical companies” to allow “relaxation” of their patents. 

About 100 countries are supporting a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), led by South Africa and India, to allow a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules for vaccines and other COVID-19 products during the pandemic. The African Union has joined the calls.

But Canada and other wealthy countries have so far refused to support the plan, the Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 12. Canadian officials say they “will continue to engage” with supporters of the waiver plan ahead of a Feb. 23 meeting of the WTO.

Meanwhile, vaccines from China, Russia and Cuba are gaining credibility and will become more broadly available in developing countries. In a time when the United States wants to recover influence lost during the relatively-isolationist years of Donald Trump’s administration, it would seem some opportunities are being missed here—for the sake of globalized corporate capitalism. The Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Cecil Makgoba, argues that President Joe Biden should use the wealth and power of the United States to see that South Africa and other countries that desperately need an effective coronavirus vaccine have access to it.

Another approach—The People’s Vaccine—is proposed by  a coalition of organisations including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Public Citizen and UNAIDS, among others.