Covid-19: No-one is safe until everyone is safe

Diane Abbott makes the case for a people’s vaccine to help get the virus under control across the world, not just in the wealthy West

THE appalling scenes in India are a shocking reminder of the catastrophic effects of failing to suppress the coronavirus.

Even with the best will in the world, in a country as poor as India, with low levels of healthcare and often overcrowded living and working conditions, there was always a risk that this might happen.

But the situation has been clearly exacerbated by following the model of allowing the virus to freely circulate.

That model is one that has been most vigorously pursued across the rich countries of the West, in the EU, in this country and in North America.

The consequences have been nothing short of catastrophic for the populations of those countries, which have some of the highest death tolls in the world, far greater than their proportions of the world’s population.

The additional culprit in this has been the government of Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro slavishly follows the Trump model of complete disregard for the virus, no decisive actions to protect the population and outlandish claims that some unspecified superiority of his people would protect them.

Unfortunately, it is also now clear that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fits into exactly the same pattern, ignoring the virus, making false claims of immunity and with very few preparations to defend against the pandemic.

We are now seeing the terrible death toll in Brazil being played out in India, but with a vastly greater population, more than six times larger.

The responsibility of countries like the US and Britain is very great in this disaster, and not just in terms of the disastrous semi-“herd immunity” approach that they followed and promoted as a model.

First, the continued circulation of the virus in the rich Western countries has allowed the rapid development of mutations.

So, it is widely reported that the mutation that is ravaging Delhi is one that developed here, the so-called “Kent variant.”

Second, rich Western countries have to date done precious little to help India in its desperate hour of need.

The US initially blocked the export of basic materials needed in the production of the vaccines.

The support has been paltry by comparison with the amount of help now needed in terms of PPE, basic medical equipment and oxygen. For its own ideological reasons, as the Times of India reports, the Modi government has so far refused offers of help from China.

It should be remembered that the Tory government has recently slashed the international aid budget.

NGOs and charities report that this is already having dire consequences for clean water programmes, family planning support and children’s education in a large number of extremely poor countries.

In Parliament, I am trying to get those cuts restored immediately for at least the duration of the pandemic, and directed towards those countries at the centre of the global upsurge in cases, starting with India.

Third, and perhaps most disgraceful of all is that it is the same rich Western countries which have blocked the joint Indian and South African initiative at the World Trade Organisation to waive patent rights on vaccines.

This would mean that far cheaper, generic vaccines could be produced on a sufficiently large scale and made available to poorer countries.

Instead, the same governments in North America and Western Europe, including this country, who have allowed their own populations to die in huge numbers have also sided with the big pharmaceutical companies in blocking the cheaper vaccines. This really is a case of putting profits before people’s lives.

This veto while people are dying in huge numbers must end. The British government should also restore the funds it previously cut from the international aid budget.

The slogan that “No-one is safe until we are all safe” is literally true.

Unfortunately, the pandemic now seems to follow a classic international and historical pattern of ravaging the poorest countries.

Previously the main victims globally were the poor people (including disabled people, black and Asian people and the lowest-paid workers) living in rich countries. Now the virus is ravaging poor countries.

We need a people’s vaccine, where supplies are made plentiful, cheap and shared equally throughout the world.

As the World Health Organisation said, it would be a moral catastrophe to do otherwise.
In addition, it is in our own self-interest, as a virus freely circulating anywhere is a threat everywhere, despite the success of the vaccine rollout in a small number of countries, including Britain.

Even these measures would not resolve the crisis. Plentiful supplies of both oxygen and vaccines are desperately required.

But by themselves will not stop the virus either spreading or mutating. Every country that successfully adopted a maximum suppression policy did so with a short, strict lockdown followed by a vigorous system of test, trace and supported isolation.

No country that achieved zero Covid did so relying mainly or solely on vaccination.

Here, the Prime Minister is in difficulties because it is reported that he said he would “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” rather than impose a third lockdown.

The subsequent nonsense about wallpaper, mobile phones and attacks on Carrie Symonds is simply designed as a distraction.

Whatever the merits of the claim, we know now that Boris Johnson allowed both; the bodies did pile higher in their thousands after he is alleged to have made those remarks, and he was forced into a third lockdown.

Tragically, another 80,000 people have died since that time. The bodies did pile higher.

As Johnson is in charge, there really is no-one else to blame for this catastrophic failure.
It is long overdue that all those politicians who allowed this enormous death toll to happen should be held to account, starting with the Prime Minister.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and was shadow home secretary from 2016 to 2020.

Photo: Trinity Care Foundation, Fight Against COVID-19 @ Jangamakote Village

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