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Opinion

Lessons of COVID-19 Vaccines for Progressive Utopians

Gerd Altmann, Pixabay

This is an abridged version of remarks delivered by Professor Michael A. Santoro to the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, University of Oxford Faculty of Law, on 10 February 2021.

I would venture to say that just about everyone working in the business and human rights field, myself included, is a Progressive Utopian. I define Progressive Utopians as people who work within the political and economic system to achieve progress on climate change, human rights, systemic racism, food security, immigration reform, and other worthy goals.

In this blog I want to consider two questions:

  1. What are the broader goals of Progressive Utopians?
  2. What has the COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution process taught us about these goals?

There are two big dreams Progressive Utopians share. The first is Economic Progressivism—changing the economic system by replacing free markets and private property with government investment and government intervention in deciding what to produce and how to allocate scarce resources. We will eliminate the profit motive; bring down the prices of essential goods (such as medicines and vaccines); and make better decisions about what products to produce so as to be kinder to the environment and healthier and more wholesome for our citizens.

A second dream of Progressive Utopians is Globalism. In its most raw, unalloyed form this means Global Government. We imagine a borderless world governed by the United Nations instead of the United States and Europe and China. And we imagine it together with economic progressivism—Political Globalism and a global, state-run economy.

Consider what just happened. The pharmaceutical industry delivered nothing short of a miracle. In less than a year (when the normal time for vaccine development can take up to a decade) they discovered and produced COVID-19 vaccines that have extraordinary safety and efficacy profiles. The private pharmaceutical companies—well-established giants like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca, and relative newcomers like Moderna and Novovax—produced miracles and delivered us from our despair.

Governments certainly were a big part of producing this miracle, providing the capital to enable vaccine discovery and development by prepaying for dosages. Vaccine development, even when there is an important medical need, is fraught with too much uncertainty to develop optimally with only private capital investment. And academic scientists and universities certainly provided much of the basic research. But the pharmaceutical industry did the hardest bits. The ability to design and conduct rigorous testing protocols involving tens of thousands of patients across multiple global regions required a vast reservoir of institutional knowledge and capacity.

It might seem like a bitter pill, but Progressive Utopians need to concede that one big lesson of COVID-19 vaccine discovery is that free markets and private enterprise worked. I, for one, am not ready to jettison the innovative and technical capabilities of the pharmaceutical industry, when, as is inevitable, the next pandemic, perhaps even scarier than this one, rears its ugly head.

While the COVID-19 vaccine experience should work to temper the enthusiasm of Progressive Utopians to rein in free markets, it is a stark reminder that we need to redouble our other dream—Global Governance. What we have learned from the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is that vaccine nationalism and our own desperation thwarts our better angels who would act with greater equity and justice for the rest of the world, especially for billions of poor citizens in the global south.

People in poor countries, however, do not have any chance of equality of access to COVID-19 vaccines because we in rich countries, in our fear and desperation, are hoarding vaccine supply. The European Union attempted to impose export restrictions on vaccines produced within its borders. The United States has locked up 1.5 billion doses while the European Union has locked up 2 billion, both far more than necessary to vaccinate their entire populations approximately twice over. Canada has reserved nearly five doses per capita and the UK and Australia nearly three per capita.

Apart from hoarding, rich countries have been stingy with financial aid that would support drug manufacturing and distribution to the global south. The United States and Europe have made but meager contributions to COVAX, the World Health Organization initiative to ensure rapid and equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines. (Overall, COVAX has received less than a third of the $38 billion it targeted for relief efforts.)

The stark reality is that countries in the global south, to the extent they will receive any COVID-19 vaccines at all, will receive vaccines that are easier to transport and store, which makes sense given the capabilities of their healthcare delivery systems. However, they will get only the cheaper, less effective and often-unproven vaccines developed in India, China, and Russia.

“Almost 70% of vaccinations so far have been sent to the 50 richest countries in the world, with just 1% of vaccinations going to the 50 most impoverished countries. This is alarming because it’s unfair, and because it could prolong or even worsen the pandemic…In the race to end this pandemic, we are all rowing in the same boat. We cannot sacrifice those at highest risk in some countries so that those at lowest risk can be vaccinated in others.”
Jagan Chapagain, Secretary-General of the International Federation of the Red Cross

It is our tribalism and sense of entitlement that stand in the way of acknowledging our global moral responsibilities. Because we are in our nation-state silos, we will never act morally in distributing essential medicines. Only a global government would offer the possibility of doing so.

The COVID-19 vaccine experience has shown us the nation-state system will never consider the rights of citizens in the global south on an equal footing with the rights of citizens in rich countries. This is a monumental moral and human rights failure.

In conclusion, I would argue that what we have learned from the COVID-19 vaccine discovery process is that as distant and unattainable, as utopian as a system of global governance may seem, this is where Progressive Utopians need to devote our efforts. The pharmaceutical industry produced the miracles we desperately needed. They have enabled privileged people in rich countries to emerge from basements and Zoom meetings, drink in pubs, eat in restaurants, and enjoy live entertainment. Our lives will start to return to normal. But it will be years before the same can be said of our fellow human beings in the global south. Free markets did not fail us morally. Private enterprise did not fail us. Tribal nationalist governments failed us.

We can and should change our economic system to make it more just and accountable, but the most important lesson of COVID-19 vaccine development is that our primary emphasis should be on moving toward a global government that can equitably and sustainably oversee and manage the abundant fruits that free markets and private enterprise make possible.

Michael A. Santoro is Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, California. He is Co-Founder and Co-Editor in Chief of the Business and Human Rights Journal as well as the Co-Founder and Past President of the Business and Human Rights Scholars Association. His latest book is, A China Business Primer: Ethics, Culture, and Respect (Routledge, 2021).

Web page: www.michaelAsantoro.com

Email: [email protected]