Vaccinating a significant part of the world's population is widely accepted as the most effective strategy to emerge quickly from the Coronavirus pandemic that we find ourselves in. As of May 20, 2021 however, only 3% of India's population has received both doses of any of the three vaccines that are currently available in the country. On average, only one in every 1000 Indians receives a vaccine dose each day.
India is not the only country that has struggled to vaccinate its population against the Coronavirus. 25% of the population in high income countries has been vaccinated compared to only 0.2% in low income countries. The WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom referred to these inequities in access to the vaccine as “a catastrophic moral failure”.
The current themes of pharmaceutical monopolies and affordable access to health remind us of the global struggle to make anti-retroviral therapy available to people living with HIV-AIDS at a time when the continent of Africa was being ravaged by that disease. That campaign for equitable access to life-saving medicines, with the South African Treatment Action Campaign at its visible core, took place just as the WTO and the TRIPS Agreement had come into existence.
What the AIDS epidemic and the campaign for life-saving medicines helped the world understand better was that the true vector of disease was inequality. The HIV virus disproportionately killed the world's poor and the marginalised.
Covid vaccines can be made available for all people, in all countries, and at speed but only if there is a fundamental transformation in how we currently manufacture and distribute medicines, but it has been done before.
In this episode of the Nagrik Podcast, we learn from a group of activists and scholars who worked on ensuring access to life saving medicines twenty years ago during the HIV-AIDS crisis, and some who today, are working for the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
We hear from:
Achal Prabhala, an activist for access to medicines, whose work spans India, Brazil, and South Africa through the accessibsa project
Anand Grover, a Senior Advocate in India and a founder-member of the Lawyers Collective, who was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health
David Legge, a scholar emeritus in the School of Public Health and Human Biosciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne, is part of the Peoples' Health Movement
Ellen t'Hoen, a lawyer and public health advocate, was the director for policy and advocacy at Médecins Sans Frontières’ campaign for access to medical treatment
Fatima Hassan, social justice activist and human rights lawyer, is the founder and director of the Health Justice Initiative
James Love, the director of Knowledge Ecology International
Leigh Haynes, a lawyer and health equity expert, who is part of the Free The Vaccine campaign
Hannah Ellis-Petersen et. al., “Stench of death pervades rural India as Ganges swells with Covid victims”, The Guardian (2021)
Alia Chughtai, "Did India get its COVID vaccine strategy wrong?", Al Jazeera (2021)
WHO COVID-19 Technology Access Pool
Ellen t'Hoen, “The global politics of pharmaceutical monopoly power”, Open Society Foundations (2009)
Christopher Butler, “Human Rights and the World Trade Organization - the right to essential medicines and the TRIPS Agreement”, 5 J. INT’L L. & POL’Y 5:1 (2007)
“The Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health - Ten Years Later: The State of Implementation”, Policy Brief 7, (South Centre: 2011)
Joseph E Stiglitz et. al., “Patents vs. the Pandemic”, Project Syndicate
Achal Prabhala et. al., “We can't let the WTO get in the way of a 'people's vaccine'”, The Guardian
Ellen t'Hoen, “Covid shows the world it needs new rules to deal with pandemics”
Achal Prabhala et. al., “The world's poorest countries are at India's mercy for vaccines. It's unsustainable”, The Guardian (2021)
“OPEN LETTER: Uniting Behind A People’s Vaccine Against COVID-19”, Oxfam International
"No profit on pandemic - European Union Citizens' Initiative"
Susan George et. al., “Taking Health back from Corporations: Pandemics, big pharma and privatized health”, TNI Long Reads,
Zachie Achmat, “How to beat the epidemic”, The Guardian (2001),
“A Timeline of HIV and AIDS”, HIV.gov
Katherine Eban, “How an Indian tycoon fought Big Pharma to sell AIDS drugs for $1 a day”
Sarah Boseley, “How Nelson Mandela changed the Aids agenda in South Africa”, The Guardian (2013)
Peoples’ Health Movement, “Peoples’ Charter for Health”