Vaccines and global health cooperation

Covid-19 vaccination programmes in most low-income countries have been proceeding much more slowly than in richer countries. This is both because of lack of finance, and because most of the available supply has been bought by the global North. It is generally accepted that the pandemic will only end when almost everyone in the world is vaccinated, since without this there will be a high risk of new variants being transmitted across borders. Universal vaccination will also hasten global economic recovery. But in practice ‘vaccine nationalism’ has so far dominated.

A global scheme for vaccine distribution, Covax, has been established, and high income countries have pledged money and vaccines to it. But both finance and supply are running well behind demand.

Many proposals for reform focus on the dominant private sector-led model of vaccine development and supply, which it is argued puts profit and the retention of intellectual property rights ahead of meeting human need. New international frameworks for financing and developing vaccines, medicines and health services in the global South have been proposed.

Vaccine strategy

Covid-19 has exposed the lack of effective collaboration on vaccine development and distribution, notably by richer governments. 

Large rich countries are prioritising the development of vaccines for their own populations first, underfunding and potentially undermining global coordination efforts.  

The UN’s attempt to set up an information pooling scheme to share intellectual property around vaccines has been strongly resisted by the pharmaceutical industry.

Vaccine cooperation

International cooperation is vital in the race to develop and distribute a safe, effective, affordable, and globally available Covid-19 vaccine.

Despite calls from low-income countries for greater levels of coordination, most rich countries are choosing to largely go it alone in the pursuit of Covid-19 vaccines that will serve their own populations first. 

Governments are being urged to increase existing commitments to multilateral funding for international vaccine development, to prioritise cooperation through bodies such as the World Health Organisation, and to prioritise investing in global manufacturing capacity to ensure vaccines get to those that need them the most. 

Universal Basic Services

Proposals for Universal Basic Services take the principles underlying the NHS - the universal provision of healthcare, free at the point of need - and argue these should be applied to a wider range of public services, such as transport, shelter, food and information (e.g. Internet access).

UBS is often contrasted to UBI (above). While the two proposals are not diametrically opposed, the difference in focus leaves room for disagreement. Some UBS supporters argue, for instance, that the best way to spend our resources and political capital in ensuring people’s core needs are met is in the radical expansion of public services, and that unconditional cash transfers would not achieve the same uplift in living standards.

Conversely, while many progressive proponents of UBI support wider and improved provision of public services - e.g. health, social care, education, information - they take issue with some proposed universal basic services (e.g. food provision) and argue that cash transfers are a more efficient, less paternalistic route to ensuring some basic needs are met.

Universal Basic Income

The proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is that all adults should receive a regular cash payment without means-testing or a requirement to work.

Supporters of UBI argue that it would simplify the social security system, reducing the bureaucracy, intrusiveness and stigma associated with claiming means-tested and conditional benefits. It would recognise and reward valuable unpaid work (such as care work and voluntary work) and would force up the quality and pay of currently low-paid jobs in order to make them attractive enough for people to do. Supporters often argue that automation will make full employment impossible, so a UBI would ensure everyone had at least a subsistence income.

Critics of UBI question the administrative cost of providing payments to every adult citizen. The government revenue needed to provide such payments would be substantial, requiring higher taxes; many recipients would effectively have the entire benefit taxed back. There would still need to be other benefits (possibly means-tested) for children and special needs such as disability. A UBI, critics argue, might also reduce incentives to work.

There are significant differences between various UBI proposals, for example concerning the size of the payment and the extent to which it would replace existing social security benefits. There are no examples of UBI being implemented at a national state level, but a number of trials and experiments are currently under way in different parts of the world.  

Trade unions and collective bargaining

Since the 1970s, in common with many other countries, the UK has seen a declining share of national income go to wages and salaries and a rising proportion returned to the owners of capital and assets. This period has coincided with a dramatic fall in trade union membership.

Many economists argue that the two are closely connected. Through collective bargaining, trade unions are able to raise workers’ wages and to improve their working conditions. Where unions are absent, employers have greater relative power.

This recognition has led to calls for a revival of trade unionism and of collective bargaining. In a more fragmented workforce where many workers are now self-employed or on precarious contracts this is difficult, but many trade unions have been finding ways to organise insecure workers.

Trade, the environment and climate change

One of the most insistent criticisms of trade agreements has been in relation to their impacts on the environment. International trade is of its nature carbon-generating, as goods are transported around the world. But trade agreements can also open up new markets for commodities produced in unsustainable ways, from fish to palm oil, tropical timber to cement.  

Many people therefore argue that environmental protection should be a core principle of trade agreements. Indeed, trade deals could be a powerful mechanism to promote stronger commitments on climate change or biodiversity conservation, rather than weaker ones.

One proposal gaining increased attention is for ‘border carbon adjustment’. This would enable countries with strong climate policies to impose tariffs on imports of goods from countries with lower standards. This would ensure that trade did not become a ‘race to the bottom’ in which lower standards were effectively incentivised. But many developing countries are worried that any such border tax could simply turn into a form of trade protectionism which froze them out of developed country markets.

Trade deal controversies

Leaving the EU means the UK needs to negotiate many new trade agreements – indeed the freedom to do so was one of the main arguments used in favour of Brexit.  

Trade deals are no longer only, or even mainly, about reducing tariffs. They primarily focus now on reducing other ‘barriers to trade’, for example by aligning national regulations in areas such as product standards, professional qualifications and environmental protections.  

Trade deal proposals are therefore often highly controversial, with many fearing they will lead to a lowering of existing standards and protections. The UK’s early discussions with the US around a post-Brexit deal were a case in point, with warnings that it would lead to the arrival of chlorinated chicken on UK shelves or the risk of further privatisation in the NHS.

One of the elements of trade agreements which has led to particular opposition is the widespread use of ‘Investor-State Dispute Settlement’ (ISDS). This is a mechanism under which a company from one signatory state investing in another can argue that new laws or regulations could negatively affect its expected profits or investment potential, and seek compensation in a binding (and often secret) arbitration tribunal. This effectively elevates the rights of corporations above a country’s democratic right to decide its own laws.

The uneven impact of Covid-19

The pandemic has sharpened the pre-existing economic disparity between men and women. Women are more likely to have lost work and income. They are more likely to work in low-paid, insecure frontline roles. In many of the sectors that have suffered most - retail, hospitality, tourism - women are over-represented.

During the pandemic women have continued to do more unpaid domestic and care work than men. During school closures, for instance, 70% of mothers reported being completely or mostly responsible for homeschooling, and mothers were 50% more likely to be interrupted during paid work hours. Covid disproportionately affected women’s mental health.

Covid lockdowns also sharply increased the incidence of domestic violence. Low income and migrant status both significantly increase women’s vulnerability to domestic abuse, underlining the need for policymakers to understand how gender intersects with other axes of inequality.

The UK government's 'green industrial revolution' plan

Looking towards the critical UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow in November, the UK government published its ‘10-point plan for a green industrial revolution’ at the end of 2020.

It pledges to mobilise £12 billion of government investment, and potentially three times as much from the private sector, to create and support up to 250,000 green jobs.

The ten areas of focus are offshore wind, low carbon hydrogen, nuclear power, zero emission vehicles, green public transport, ‘jet zero’ and green ships, greener buildings, carbon capture, usage and storage, protection of the natural environment and green finance and innovation.

While some aspects of the plan were welcomed by environmental groups, others criticised it for vagueness and for failing to clarify how the UK would achieve its statutory emissions reduction targets, including its commitment to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050.

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