No end to COVID-19 pandemic absent international cooperation

Author: Jeremy Youde, University of Minnesota Duluth India is in the grips of a massive COVID-19 outbreak, with the total number of cases now numbering more than 24 million sick and more than 250,000 deaths (though the number of COVID-19 deaths is likely significantly higher). The country is setting records for the number of new […] The post No end to COVID-19 pandemic absent international cooperation first appeared on East Asia Forum.

No end to COVID-19 pandemic absent international cooperation

Author: Jeremy Youde, University of Minnesota Duluth

India is in the grips of a massive COVID-19 outbreak, with the total number of cases now numbering more than 24 million sick and more than 250,000 deaths (though the number of COVID-19 deaths is likely significantly higher). The country is setting records for the number of new cases nearly every day. Arundhati Roy, the world-renowned Indian author and activist, has called the situation a ‘crime against humanity’.

The rapid surge of cases in this second wave of COVID-19 has quickly overwhelmed India’s health care system. Medical oxygen, a vital tool for treating patients whose blood oxygen levels are too low, is in such short supply that some hospitals are asking patients to bring their own oxygen with them. Hospitals have even sued the government to force it to devise a plan to supply oxygen. Patients who can’t get a hospital bed are being forced to lie outside because there is no space inside.

Compounding the situation is the sheer lack of vaccines to stop further spread of the virus. In late April, Mumbai, home to roughly 20 million people, had to stop all vaccination campaigns for three days because it had no more vaccines. Though India is the world’s biggest producer of vaccines and has been engaged in an active vaccine diplomacy program, the country is now importing doses of Russia’s Sputnik and the AstraZeneca vaccine, along with the locally-produced Covaxin vaccine, to resume its vaccination program The country was able to resume vaccinations thanks to donations of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine and locally-produced supplies of the AstraZeneca and Covaxin vaccines.

Despite widespread acknowledgement that viruses do not respect borders, India’s devastating experience with COVID-19 calls into question the degree to which the international community is willing to translate idea into practice. Programs like the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) are supposed to ensure a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, but the reality seems instead to reinforce the inequalities around vaccine distribution.

While shipments of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the United States will be helpful, there is more that it could do to ameliorate the shortages in India—and the inequitable access to COVID vaccines more generally. A program like COVAX or donations from the United States can only do so much to resolve structural inequalities that limit access to pharmaceuticals and vaccines; it addresses the immediate issues but not the underlying root causes that give rise to maldistribution in the first place. If world leaders want to make pharmaceuticals more accessible, they need to change the intellectual property rights system governing therapeutic drugs.

Intellectual property rights grant creators the right to control who gets to produce a product and under what conditions through the granting of patents. This control is supposed to reward innovation by allowing creators of intellectual property to reap the rewards from their discoveries.

This might make sense in the case of a car or a computer, but what happens when the people who need access to a drug to protect public health are the very people who lack the money to purchase it? When commerce takes precedence over public health and prevents people from getting the drugs that can protect their own lives and those of others, the risk increases for everyone.

This tension between commercial interests and health is not unique to COVID-19. When antiretrovirals were developed to prolong the lives of those living with HIV, the annual cost was more than US$10,000 — making them completely unaffordable for the majority of people in the countries with the highest rates of HIV infection. This led to the adoption of the Doha Declaration in 2001, allowing countries to ignore patent protections for pharmaceuticals when there is a public health emergency. This includes allowing countries to manufacture their own generic versions of patented drugs.

Both India and South Africa have called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to declare a public health emergency. Wealthy states resisted these pleas for months, but the United States and China have both announced that they would support a waiver in this instance, though pharmaceutical manufacturers and a number of European governments remain opposed. Drug companies argue that the move would stifle the innovations that allowed them to develop the vaccines so quickly, and European governments argue that the move will do little to ease the shortage. Even with American and Chinese support, though, the WTO’s consensus-based decision-making process means that it is entirely unclear when (or if) a waiver will be granted — while India’s COVID-19 outbreak continues to explode.

Stopping the global COVID-19 pandemic requires meaningful international cooperation. The outbreak in India shows what happens when that collaboration is absent or slow in coming. Action is needed that requires a willingness to change the rules about pharmaceutical intellectual property rights to match the scope and scale of the challenge from the disease that the global community faces.

Jeremy Youde is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

This article is part of an  on the COVID-19 crisis and its impact.

The post No end to COVID-19 pandemic absent international cooperation first appeared on East Asia Forum.
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Sri Lanka’s independent foreign policy paradox

Author: Rajni Gamage, UQ Facing unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, mounting public debt and international condemnation of human rights violations, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy straddles conflicting domestic and international demands. At home and abroad, the country’s leadership has adopted strongman politics associated with the ruling Rajapaksa family. This type of strongman politics appeals to […] The post Sri Lanka’s independent foreign policy paradox first appeared on East Asia Forum.

Sri Lanka’s independent foreign policy paradox

Author: Rajni Gamage, UQ

Facing unique challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, mounting public debt and international condemnation of human rights violations, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy straddles conflicting domestic and international demands. At home and abroad, the country’s leadership has adopted strongman politics associated with the ruling Rajapaksa family.

This type of strongman politics appeals to sections of the majority Sinhala Buddhist population, especially after the national security negligence of the previous government during the 2019 Easter bombings. Yet despite claiming its foreign policy upholds Sri Lankan sovereignty and independence, the government has paradoxically become more dependent on external forces to achieve its foreign policy goals.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy dilemmas include the risk of being ensnared by China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and the need to manage larger states competing for regional dominance. The alleged debt-trap diplomacy refers to China funding white elephant infrastructure in poorer countries with high interest loans so that recipient states, like Sri Lanka, acquiesce to Beijing’s strategic objectives.

Yet this narrative has been debunked by several reports, citing Sri Lanka’s relatively low percentage of debt owed to China. Incompetence and ad hoc decision making — within both the Chinese and Sri Lankan governments — better explain the poor performance of joint Chinese–Sri Lankan development initiatives.

Sri Lanka’s ballooning foreign debt stems from global changes to international commercial borrowing. Since attaining middle-income country status in 1997, it is much easier for Colombo to obtain financing through bilateral loans than from traditional lenders like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which often require political–economic restructuring as conditionalities to their loans.

Last year, the IMF prematurely ended its US$1.5 billion loan program to Sri Lanka. Difficulty in repaying large amounts of commercial foreign debt has driven Sri Lanka’s deepening reliance on countries like China to tide-over its balance of payments problems.

This ‘dependence’ includes the well-known 99-year lease of the southern Hambantota Port to the Chinese state-controlled China Merchant Port Holdings, which holds a 70 per cent stake in a joint venture with Sri Lanka Ports Authority. In March 2021, Sri Lanka announced a US$1.5 billion currency swap with the Chinese central bank and that it would partner with China in developing two irrigation reservoirs in a UNESCO-protected heritage site, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Now a proposed Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill, pertaining to the single largest private-sector development on the island, is facing contestations within government and civil society over concerns it could become a ‘Chinese colony’.

China also extended economic and medical assistance to Colombo as part of its ‘pandemic diplomacy’, after COVID-19 dealt a major blow to the island’s tourism industry and foreign remittances from the Middle East. These foreign policy overtures have triggered regional anxieties over Beijing’s role in Sri Lanka. These anxieties are foremost among members of the ‘Quad’ — an informal alliance of India, Japan, the United States and Australia — who see China as competing for dominance in the Indian Ocean Region.

The Quad completed its first summit in March this year. But the Chinese government sees it as an ‘exclusive clique’sowing regional division by playing up the ‘China threat’ narrative. While many Quad states provided pandemic-related assistance, especially India as part of ‘Operation Maitri’ and its Neighbourhood First Policy, subsequent foreign policy moves by the Rajapaksa administration weakened the island-state’s so-called ‘non-alignment’ stance.

Such moves include cancelling the US$480 million United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Agreement and Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ECT) development project, finalised in partnership with India and Japan. Although the Sri Lankan government subsequently finalised an agreement with India’s Adani group to develop the West Container Terminal of Colombo Port, the Indian government distanced itself from the deal.

The official Sri Lankan discourse that accompanies backtracking on these development agreements is particularly interesting. The decision to unilaterally call off the ECT agreement was portrayed as the result of unrelenting trade union and civil society group protests against privatisation of state-owned corporations. Meanwhile, a turnaround on the MCC Agreement was framed by the government in terms of upholding the country’s sovereignty against foreign interference.

Despite official pronouncements about independence and sovereignty, the country’s economic and political trajectory is increasingly dependent on finding alternative sources of financial and development assistance from abroad. This dependence is sustained by a militarised form of neoliberal development supported by key sections of Sri Lanka’s ruling elite. The local patronage networks they sustain are essential for managing domestic unrest over increasing living costs, political rights and environmental destruction.

Yet this discourse has considerable purchase with a government under pressure to introduce a new constitution — a reform that would limit the devolution of power through the existing Provincial Council system. It also lends domestic legitimacy to a government facing international pressure over human rights violations, especially after the UN received a mandate to investigate war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war that ended in 2009.

The UN resolution was criticised by Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena as a Western-backed move to dominate the Global South, with China being among those states who voted against the resolution.

Given the combination of the domestic and international demands the Sri Lankan government faces, a truly independent foreign policy seems increasingly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Rajni Gamage is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland (UQ).

The post Sri Lanka’s independent foreign policy paradox first appeared on East Asia Forum.
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