Nesrine Malik points out to us that those poor folk out there in poor countries are dying in their droves from the Covid virus. This is true. We should do something about this, that’s also true. What, exactly, we should do about this is rather more difficult.
The standard solution, that we need to get the poor countries to be rich is also true. But that’s a rather longer term project than might be reasonable right now. After all, an economy can only grow at perhaps 10% per year – sustainably that is, year after year. And it does take a few decades of that to get somewhere from the historical peasant destitution up to the sort of level where kife isw a more reasonable experience.
Take, say, DR Congo. Current estimates of GDP per capita are perhaps $600 a year. They can’t be far below that as that’s about the level at which a population is able to reproduce itself. The population isn’t falling – therefore GDP per capita can’t be far below that. OK, but 10% pa growth, about the fastest anywhere has ever managed over time would still take 30 years to get to global average of about $8,000. This is possible, China just did it, but this is still perhaps a rather longer term solution than we’re looking for.
But we shouldn’t have to wait for images like those to spur action. What is required is something far more ambitious than vaccine donations. The world needs a global logistical exercise, a sort of Marshall plan that would provide financial support, expert manpower and medical technology. In the US, Democratic senators, progressives, NGOs and an alliance of 175 former world leaders and Nobel laureates have come together to apply pressure on Biden to waive intellectual-property protections on vaccines. As the virus recedes in the west, now is the time to apply this kind of pressure on leaders to deliver the south from its almost certain fate. By the time the real numbers of deaths and infections in poorer countries become clear, it will be far too late for many people.
It’s all very trendy to demand that vacation of patents at present. But it wouldn’t do any good.
Every factory in the world that is capable of making vaccines already is. Any factory that wishes to make vaccines can gain access to those patents to do so. Vacating the patents wouldn’t make any difference to the number of factories nor their access to the patents. So, killing the patents wouldn’t make any difference to the number of dead patients at present. Further, any country can just declare an emergency and use any patent concerning drugs they like. Because, you know, emergency.
However, that vacation would produce harm in the immediate and further future. Because if the folks who have paid for this cure for a disease – and whatever one might say about government support there has been private money in here too – find out there’s no cash in having done so then they’ll not cough up, nor will anyone else, for the decades long process of finding cures for other diseases. Incentives, after all, do matter.
But then as we should all know these cries for killing patents on vaccines are nothing at all to do with Covid. It’s really part of a desire to kill patents and covid is the excuse.