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.

20 years: Digna Ochoa, ¡Presente!

“I learned that due to the rampant corruption and impunity in Mexico, it was not sufficient to be innocent, to be right, and to have the law on your side, but it was necessary to fight against an entire government structure that defends very specific political and economic interests.”

Digna Ochoa, speaking in September 2000 to the Enduring Spirit awards dinner in Los Angeles
Digna was remembered at an Amnesty International event in Toronto, 2011; Linda Diebel’s Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa. The quote cited above is from p.445 of Diebel’s book.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Digna Ochoa, a lawyer who defended the human rights of ecologists in Guerrero state and whose death remains a muddle of sloppy investigation, useless gossip, and high-level cover-ups.

While there are still a handful of officials who stick by their suicide-by-two-bullets version of events, the Mexican government this year admitted at least partial responsibility for her death. The admission came May 27 during a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and included a commitment to re-open the case. The new investigation will proceed with a human rights perspective and a gender approach under international standards, in addition to the participation of the family and their legal representation.

I met Digna on Nov. 25, 1999, a little less than two years before her death. Earlier that year, she had left the convent of Dominican nuns before taking her vows, and engaged herself fully in her original passion: the law. We were together in a fairly large group of representatives of Mexican non-governmental organizations who spent the day preparing a presentation delivered by a smaller group later that evening to Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who was then the head of the United Nations’ human rights commission. 

Digna’s legal defence of imprisoned and tortured rural ecologists who challenged logging companies in Guerrero—the Pacific coast state south of Mexico City that includes the resort cities of Acapulco and Ixtapa—brought her into conflict not just with the companies but the political establishment in Guerrero, and quite likely with the Mexican army and its allies in the national government and that of Mexico City. In the months before the meeting with Robinson, Digna had already been kidnapped twice and threatened countless times.

Our 40-page message (reduced to nine paragraphs for the oral presentation) to Robinson addressed these points:

  1. Obtaining and imparting justice: impunity, legalized repression, inefficiency in investigations, lack of independence, manipulation of the law, military justice, lack of knowledge of international protection.
  2. Militarization of public security and military presence in Indigenous and rural areas.
  3. The general situation of Indigenous people in Mexico: internal legislation, state institutions and public policies with regards to Indigenous women, Indigenous rights and the environment, land and territory.
  4. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: globalization, labour rights, freedom of association, land rights and the situation of small farmers.
  5. Political rights in Mexico: institutional reform, electoral rights, and political rights in general.
  6. Harassment and aggression against defenders of human rights and journalists. (In the evening meeting with Robinson, Digna Ochoa read this section.) 

At that time, there was a lot of hope in Mexico that the long run of the PRI party was nearing its end. Indeed, the following July, Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party won the election. But 21 years later—after two PAN governments, one more by the PRI, and now three years of the popular left administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—few would argue that things have improved for most Mexicans. 

Today, a new civil society report to Robinson’s successor, Michelle Bachelet, might add a focus on the extremely high numbers of forced disappearances—about 91,000 between 2006 and 2021—and all of the issues related to migration from and through Mexico toward the United States. As it happens, Bachelet is collaborating with the Mexican government in ongoing investigation of the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa normal school students who were disappeared in Guerrero in 2014. 

It may be hard to find signs of improvement yet, but every step toward truth-telling and investigation of crimes old and new lays the foundation for a better future that is still being imagined.

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: