Covid vaccine Covid vaccine. Photo: Pixabay

The progress of producing good vaccines in record time is at risk from systemic capitalist and nationalist rivalries, writes Kevin Ovenden

It takes capitalism to seize an incredible achievement of collective science and use it to promote grubby nationalist confrontations that risk undermining the health of all of us.

We saw that last week with the dispute between the European Union, the British government and the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine manufacturer. It is part of growing tensions globally.

The immediate crisis was deferred on Saturday as the European Commission dropped from its control of vaccine exports an incendiary plan to impose a hard “vaccine border” within Ireland, north and south.

But chauvinist denunciations have not receded – from right-wing Tory papers in Britain to the president of France. Emmanuel Macron told a select group of journalists, without evidence, that the AZ vaccine doesn’t work anyway in over-65s. That is incredibly reckless from the president of the European country that has the biggest problem with vaccine-hesitant and outright anti-vaxx opinion.

Even fanatically pro-EU papers such as the Observer voiced shock at Macron’s intervention. They rightly pointed out that it is driven by him turning increasingly to French nationalist rhetoric as his poll lead over the fascist Marine Le Pen narrows dangerously ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Tory government is using its relatively better rollout of vaccination compared with the EU to try to shroud the enormous failings that have led to over 100,000 people dead. It is the worst rate in the world.

It was nothing short of sickening to read Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer writing in the Mail on Sunday about a “national success story” on vaccination under a headline claiming that Britain is “the envy of the world”.

How little these politicians seem to care about the terrible death toll. For them, it is yesterday’s news, though the numbers climb daily. Today in Britain and in the EU states, governments are each deflecting responsibility and consequently risking what should be a great scientific advance globally.

That is what lies behind the “vaccine nationalism” that erupted in Europe last week. What happened?

Common problem, nationalist blame game

AstraZeneca said it would have to cut by 75 percent the supply of its vaccine to the EU on account of production problems at a Belgian plant it partnered with. The European Commission said it was being cheated by the Anglo-Swedish company. It said supply should come from British-based plants and claimed that vaccines had gone from the EU to Britain.

It moved to authorise member states to control vaccine exports. With officials apparently not understanding the political implications, or much about Irish history, it triggered the emergency Article 16 procedure of the “Northern Ireland Protocol” of the Brexit agreement to limit movement of goods across the Irish border.

AZ and the British government said that the production in Britain was already allocated under contract to the UK. So out of a real problem of lack of supply that should concern us all, there erupts a vicious chauvinist row.

Park for a moment the detailed arguments about commercial contracts and rival nationalist claims. Here are some facts.

The EU was terribly slow in sponsoring vaccine development and ordering supplies. Don’t take my word for it. Look across the European media. Bureaucratic inertia was compounded by national rivalries. Far from abolishing those, the EU has been a field in which they are played out.

Even ardent “Europeans” recognise that the Commission has used the sudden supply problem as an excuse for its longer-term failings. Those are now being felt in vaccination programmes being put on hold. Just 2 percent of adults have been vaccinated in the EU. In Britain the figure is 11 percent who have received their first jab.

Cue Daily Mail headlines about Britain being “the envy of the world” and xenophobic Brussels bashing.

This researched article, however, shows that better vaccination rates have nothing to do with some supposed British genius or with a Tory government that has given billions to its mates over scams like failed track and trace. It shows:

First, a group of scientists at Oxford University were able to move incredibly quickly, cooperating with colleagues globally, to turn a brilliant idea into an effective vaccine candidate. When they were ready for mass trials and then production they insisted upon providing the vaccine at cost and not-for-profit. (“Not-for-profit” does not stop all sorts of executives and shareholders making a packet in hidden ways, but still…)

What a vindication of the socialist argument against the capitalist ideology holding that people, especially “clever people”, will never innovate unless they can make a massive financial gain. In fact, the history of medical innovation shows huge reliance upon public institutions such as universities as opposed to corporations.

Second, there was some mechanism in Britain to bring together the state, the Oxford research and a big pharmaceutical manufacturer. While what’s called “industrial policy” with a degree of state planning was largely abandoned in the neoliberal period in Britain, a partial exception has been medical sciences.

It has been a double-edged sword as it has also meant penetration of commercial interests into universities and the NHS. But successive British governments did spot that biotechnology was going through enormous advances and they sought to “pick winners” in what they anticipated would be a huge international market.

A broadly capitalist incentive produced a slightly more rational organisation of resources within the bounds of the nation state in this instance.

So the trumpeted success of the Vaccine Taskforce has nothing to do with the Tories or with a venture capitalist being brought in. It is a product of an area of the economy that was not thrown completely over to ultra-Thatcherism (state bad, private good). It rests upon an approach that the Labour government of Harold Wilson would have recognised in the 1960s.

Third, the administration of the vaccine is down to the existence of the NHS. Despite all the chunks ripped out of it by privatisation, underfunding and a contrived internal market, it remains something that is genuinely held in high regard by people around the world.

The fragmentation of the NHS has caused some difficulties over vaccination. But inoculation is happening thanks in part to a de facto suspension of the false market norms the service has been subjected to. It is also thanks to at least this part of Covid response not being handed over to incompetent profiteering corporations.

So there are no grounds for Tory (or Labour) politicians to mark this as a triumph of British pluck or “spirit”. What success in this area there has been is in the context of appalling national government failure and is down to the residue of something far from uniquely British – the recognition of what used to be widespread: matters cannot be left to the free market.

Governments’ failures and chauvinist distraction

There is another factor, and it is far from positive. Several independent reports quote government officials saying “we gambled on the vaccine” in April last year.

That translates into gambling, and losing, with people’s lives over not taking proper measures to suppress the virus then, in the hope of a magic bullet later. So the British government’s preparedness to enhance vaccine development is not a sign of perspicacity. It is a perverse byproduct of a policy that has led to the opposite of being “the envy of the world”.

If they were sincere, the Mail on Sunday and Keir Starmer would say any country’s policy that had both controlled the virus and developed a vaccine within its territory should merit consideration – say China’s. But they will not, because this is about shoddy nationalist politics above all.

So no activist should be shy of making our points on a different political basis.

Imagine if universities were freed from commercial imperatives. How much more powerful would be the driving force of scientific and other breakthroughs?

If a limited bucking of free market dogma meant faster vaccine development and delivery, why not move against it more – totally?

Renationalising the NHS and creating a publicly owned pharmaceutical manufacturer were two rather modest policies in the manifesto of Corbyn-Labour. There is zero chance of those coming from Starmer-Labour, too busy as it is waving a Union Flag and volunteering support to the Tory government.

That does not stop the left raising these things through the labour movement today and pressing to bring vital industry under democratic workers control.

Popular-democratic control within a nation state doesn’t mean it has to be nationalist. While claiming to be a world leader in vaccination, the British government has also helped to block poorer countries from copying the technology to produce vaccines domestically where they can.

It is also engaged in an obscene global competition of seeking vaccination at home and to hell with the rest, all guided by getting the “national economy” up and running before others do. So “we” can beat them.

As a range of experts from the World Health Organisation to the scientists in Oxford say, this will mean not only terrible suffering globally but the risk of mutations against which vaccines may not be effective. We already have something like that in South Africa, which is being charged twice the price as Europe and Britain for each vaccine shot.

“Capitalist progress is like some pagan god who will drink nectar only from the skulls of the slain,” wrote Karl Marx.

The progress of producing good vaccines in record time is at risk from systemic capitalist and nationalist rivalries, and from politicians who stand on a mountain of skulls while trying to seek petty advantage and avoid responsibility.

Whatever the national-chauvinist sirens screech, a lot of people in Britain and in Europe reject that message and are very angry at their “own” governments at home. We should build on that everywhere – with an unwavering eye to international solidarity.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.