Mar 1, 2021
Excerpted from Lutte Ouvrière, the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.
In South America, the pandemic has already claimed more than 600,000 lives. The presidents of Mexico and Brazil each had their own casual attitude to the health crisis, and these are two of the three countries where the pandemic has been the most deadly, along with the United States. It is vital for vaccination to spread in Latin America, but the reality is far from that.
None of the organizations of governments in this region have tried to collectively negotiate buying vaccines. Rather, even the most developed countries on the continent don’t have much pull with the powerful pharmaceutical trusts. The conglomerates’ appetite for profit has led them to give trade negotiating priority to the “biggest paying” governments.
The Pan American Health Organization, a regional branch of the World Health Organization, has said this year could be worse than 2020 for Latin America and the Caribbean, as the number of infections and deaths is rising again in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, and other countries. And the very slow vaccination campaign is limited to Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Also, the doses ordered arrive in small quantities.
Buying medicines has always been difficult in this part of the world, even more so with the health crisis and the worsening of the economic crisis. The region’s gross domestic product fell by eight percent in 2020. Adding to this economic weakness is another difficulty: rich countries have already pre-purchased three quarters of the vaccine doses. So, high-income countries—which represent 16% of the world’s population—have 65% of the available doses.
So each national government acted on its own behalf. Chile made an agreement with Pfizer. Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Paraguay and Venezuela opted for the Sputnik V vaccine. Argentina pledged to buy 20 million doses, which is not enough to immunize its 44 million people. Colombia rejected the Russian vaccine but negotiated with Pfizer. However, because of the freezer equipment it requires, the vaccine will be restricted to cities and unavailable for rural people.
In Brazil, Sao Paulo’s governor negotiated with sales agents of the Chinese vaccine, CoronaVac, but the country’s president did not want to hear about it. Peru failed to reach a deal with Pfizer, for lack of resources, and will resort to China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Guatemala and Nicaragua could not interest any suppliers.
On the other hand, Cuba is holding true to its reputation in medical matters and is developing four vaccines even though the American embargo makes it difficult to acquire the necessary materials. One of those vaccines is expected to enter its final phase of clinical trials in March, with help from the Pasteur Institute of Iran. If its effectiveness is confirmed, Cuba will make 100 million doses this year, which will allow the vaccination of Cuba’s 11 million people as well as tourists, with some left over to help the poorest countries—as the Cuban health system often does.
Finally, as for the 10 poorest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean including Bolivia and Haiti, the World Health Organization has set up a program called Covax which is supposed to provide doses of vaccines free of charge. This program is expected to be extended to 27 other countries in the region, which would benefit from getting doses at a discount, but this will only reach 20% of the population.
The non-profit Oxfam estimates that in the 70 poorest countries in the world—including several in Latin America and the Caribbean—nine out of 10 people will not have access to the vaccine. This situation, like the whole health crisis, highlights the ravages of the laws of profit. Not only will the number of victims of the virus increase, but the already brutal economic crisis is growing—as well as the trails of migrants trying to flee poverty and death.