The uncharted road to international recovery from COVID-19

Author: Editorial Board, ANU The horrifying scale of the COVID-19 crisis in India should be warning enough that the path of the global health and economic recovery is still unknown. Growing hubris in countries like Australia, the United States and even the United Kingdom, where isolation and comprehensive national vaccination are now embraced as elixirs […] The post The uncharted road to international recovery from COVID-19 first appeared on East Asia Forum.

The uncharted road to international recovery from COVID-19

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

The horrifying scale of the COVID-19 crisis in India should be warning enough that the path of the global health and economic recovery is still unknown. Growing hubris in countries like Australia, the United States and even the United Kingdom, where isolation and comprehensive national vaccination are now embraced as elixirs for the pandemic and all its economic ills, will likely be vainglorious.

Locking national borders to the COVID-19 virus has stemmed its deadly tide and help kickstart national economic recoveries. The huge monetary and fiscal sugar hit to economic activity in the major western economies has predictably given employment and incomes an enormous short-term lift: but to where?

Locking down against trade, the exchange of scientific knowledge, technologies, and movement of people, in the longer term, promises less secure global health outcomes and the prospect of long-term national and global economic stagnation, paring percentage points off future growth and human welfare.

The health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented. International cooperation is essential to getting health supplies, diagnostics and equipment to where they are needed and ensuring their fair and equitable distribution of vaccines. It will speed up the continuing development and global distribution of vaccines — more quickly than has ever been possible before. It is essential to establishing international health regulations, quarantine regimes and protocols that will allow the world to gradually open up again to international travel and for the global economy to realise its potential.

Without international cooperation and coordination, the world is facing a prolonged health crisis and lasting economic stagnation on a scale not seen since the 1930s. Closed economies will face slower recoveries and a future of lower incomes. International economic cooperation will be vital to managing the crisis and to supporting the recovery through trade, stabilising markets, faster reopening of business supply chains and a lower cost of investment.

There is no simple solution to the social and economic damage done by the pandemic. Different countries are still in different stages in the crisis and circumstances. National action to arrest the pandemic within borders now needs to be combined with regional and global coordination on public health and economic policies.

The world must deal simultaneously with twin challenges: the international health policy challenges and the economic policy challenges of exit from the crisis. Failure to navigate judiciously between these two has caused, and will continue to cause, social disruption, more deaths and economic hardship.

Now is a time for maximum international cooperation as we grapple with a common global threat. Yet, there’s a dearth of it, especially in getting the balance right between health and economic policies.

In the first of our two lead articles this week, Jeremy Youde points out that, ‘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 ideas 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 to reinforce the inequalities around vaccine distribution’.

‘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’, Youde argues.

If pharmaceuticals are to be made more accessible, key suppliers such as the United States will need to change the intellectual property rights system governing therapeutic drugs. The regime for protecting intellectual property rights for public health therapies must differ from that for other goods. In public health, making therapies that prevent communicable disease more accessible lowers risk for everyone.

Last week, US President Joe Biden blindsided European countries by announcing that the United States would suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines in line with a WTO initiative that seeks to open up vaccine supplies to developing countries starved of them.

This is a welcome development. The United States has been hoarding vaccine stocks, so the move undercuts accusations that it is practising ‘vaccine apartheid’. It’s a move that also bravely takes on the powerful US big pharma lobby and their protected super-profits. It will be a long haul to get WTO members, including the Europeans, Australia and others to sign on, though Biden and his Trade Representative Katherine Tai now have the initiative.

But, as Ken Heydon points out in our second lead article this week, ‘even if the waiver receives the necessary support of all 164 WTO members, this will not prevent intellectual property right restrictions from stopping developing countries from acquiring knowledge of new techniques to design vaccines and to develop the cell lines needed in vaccine manufacture’. That requires ensuring the free flow of inputs within the supply chain that are vital to global vaccine production.

Trade is thus a crucial element in building global vaccine capacity and succeeding in the fight against the pandemic. And bad trade policy has been a serious impediment to the free flow of vaccines, vital vaccine inputs and the knowledge behind their production. A number of governments, including in the United States, the European Union and India, have placed embargoes or restrictions on the export of vaccines. Perversely, Heydon notes, India has had a 10 per cent customs duty on imported vaccines. More importantly, restrictions have also been placed on the materials needed for vaccine manufacture. US invocation of the Defense Production Act, which requires US suppliers of materials and equipment for vaccine production to seek approval to export, put global access to 37 critical vaccine inputs at risk.

The idea — including in Australia where the wrong-headed, shambolic commitment to building its vaccination program around early local manufacture should have been a sufficient lesson — that self-sufficiency and retreat from trade is the route to global vaccine security is a fallacy. As Heydon points out, the global shortage of bioreactor bags, critical in the vaccine supply chain, is a consequence of the US policy of prioritising domestic production. The potential for supply disruption through trade policy interference is stark: the Pfizer vaccine needs 280 components from 86 suppliers in 19 countries. Manufacturing Pfizer, Moderna or any of these vaccines anywhere requires keeping trade open not closing it down.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala met last month with government and industry representatives to discuss ways of strengthening supply chains. A guiding principle in her work is that any restrictions should be ’temporary’. But even temporary restrictions will disrupt crucial medical supply chains, as we’ve seen in India.

Keeping trade open is one priority in international cooperation. The other is to facilitate the production and accessibility of vaccines globally.

India and South Africa have also called on the WTO to declare a public health emergency. The Doha Declaration of 2001 allows countries to ignore patent protections for pharmaceuticals when there is a public health emergency. This would include allowing countries to manufacture their own generic versions of patented drugs. Wealthy states and pharmaceutical companies continue to resist these pleas, though now the United States and China have announced that they would support a waiver in this instance.

Hopefully this international momentum will gain strength, not only on health but also for cooperation on economic recovery and reconstruction.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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

The post The uncharted road to international recovery from COVID-19 first appeared on East Asia Forum.
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Myanmar Junta Targets Civilians in Siege of Chin Town Where Militia Fought Back

Mindat militiamen had killed dozens of better-equipped troops in weeks of fighting.

Myanmar Junta Targets Civilians in Siege of Chin Town Where Militia Fought Back

Junta troops pounded a town in the mountains of western Myanmar's Chin state with heavy artillery and helicopter gunships on Sunday, killing at last five civilians in a campaign to subdue a local ethnic militia that had resisted the army with crude hunting guns, a local rights group and a media outlet said.

The weekend siege of Mindat, where the military regime had declared martial law Thursday, produced accounts of the “possible commission of war crimes” by army troops, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said, including reports that junta soldiers were shooting civilians on sight and using them as human shields.

“At least five civilians reported dead and ten injured, and houses and properties destroyed under heavy bombings from air and ground assaults as junta army lay siege on the town of Mindat,” the CHRO said in a Facebook post Sunday.

“The Chinland Defense Force-Mindat said they made a tactical retreat in order to save civilian lives from indiscriminate attacks on the town by junta troops using heavy artillery and helicopter gunships,” the group said, referring to local militia formed last month to defend the town.

“Possible commission of war crimes may have occurred as there appears to be evidence of grave breaches of the Geneva Convention in the battle for control of Mindat town,” said the CHRO.

The Irrawaddy, an independent on-line news outlet, reported that junta troops backed by artillery and helicopters raided Mindat, a town of 20,000 people on Saturday, following several days of fighting after a ceasefire broke down on Wednesday.

The report quoted residents as saying eight Chinland resistance fighters were killed and approximately 20 were injured in shootouts in Mindat with the security forces, according to residents.

“Junta troops also used 18 detained civilians as human shields while entering the town, according to residents,” the Irrawaddy reported.

“Troops are now deployed across the town and are opening fire on anyone on the streets,” it added in a report Sunday. RFA was unable to immediately confirm the account.

Militia members attend a training led by Karen National Union (KNU), in Karen State, Myanmar April 9, 2021 in this still image obtained by Reuters from a video, April 26, 2021.

‘Respect and condolences’

In a Facebook post Sunday, the Chinland Defense Force (CDF) voiced “respect and condolences to the families” of members Mang Kee Thang, Hung Awm Hung, Kee Tam, Thang Phep, Ha Khui Shing, and Khui Shing Ning, who had “donated (their) life while fighting for the public.”

Counting the six dead Chin fighters, the Thailand-based rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said that as of Sunday, at least 796 people have been killed by the junta, and 3998 are in detention.

The attacks on civilians drew criticism from the U.S. embassy in Yangon and by rights groups.

“The military’s use of weapons of war against civilians, including this week in Mindat, is a further demonstration of the depths the regime will sink to to hold onto power. We call on the military to cease violence against civilians,” the embassy said in its Twitter account Sunday.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the siege of Mindat and reported abuses of local residents there comports with the Myanmar army’s “long record of wantonly disregarding human rights and failing to protect civilians in its operations.”

Thursday’s martial law declaration set the stage for the junta "to act with impunity against the people of the town, including indiscriminate attacks, disproportionate use of force, and mass roundups of suspected activists, including any men and boys who remain in the town,” he said in a statement Sunday.

Chin, a poor and mountainous state on Myanmar’s western border with Bangladesh and India, is home to about a half million mostly Christian citizens.

Mindat and the eight other townships in Chin state were among the first areas in Myanmar to form local militias to resist the junta’s security forces in response to violent crackdowns on protests against the military’s seizure of power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1. Scores of other militias have been formed, with some receiving training from ethnic rebel armies in border areas.

Recruits for a new force formed by protesters against Myanmar's military junta receive classroom instruction in ways to fight at a training camp in an area held by an ethnic armed group in Karen State, Myanmar April 9, 2021. Credit: Reuters

‘We all have guns’

The CDF was formed on April 4, but Chin fighters had already started attacking junta forces after the March 23 arrest of anti-coup protesters when troops did not release them at a time demanded by the Chin group.

“When the deadline passed, we went to their camps and attacked them with reinforcements from Matupi,” a member of the CDF told RFA Friday.

“Every Chin man has used guns to hunt since a young age and we are all familiar with firearms. We all have guns in our houses,” said the fighter, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“A total of 40 soldiers were killed, 30 in Mindat and 10 in Hakha,” the Chin state capital, he added.

In Chin’s neighboring Sagaing region, the city of Kalay, where more than half the population is ethnic Chin, a resistance movement called the Kalay Region Defense Association (KRDA) sprung up after the military used heavy artillery to smash barricades disperse peaceful protests in early April.

“The youth broke into small armed groups. Some groups were not strong enough to fight against the military, but now we have merged into a large organization, and we have more manpower as well as better tactics,” a KRDA member told RFA Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.

He said that the youths had no experience or weapons, but were galvanized into action by the junta’s brutality. The KRDA claims to have killed nine junta soldiers in April.

“We are armed with only hunting rifles and air guns. We don’t have proper weapons, and only six out of 10 have any weapons at all,” the KRDA member said. “We only have the strength of our morals to rely on.”

Air rifles and slingshots

South of Kalay in Sagaing’s Kani township, the Kani People’s Defense Force (KPDF) sprung up after the attempted arrest of a Buddhist abbot had driven villagers into “active revolt against the military,” said a militia member, who claimed the group now has 7,000 members..

“Some of us had air rifles and others had slingshots, but I only had a knife in my hand,” he told RFA

“They had only about 60 troops that day, and when the two sides met, there were about a thousand of us. But our air rifles are no good. After firing a shot, it takes another three minutes to shoot the next,” he said.

“While our side was reloading, those armed with slingshots fired upon the enemy continuously. About 40 soldiers were killed that day,” added the KPDF fighter.

The National Unity Government (NUG), launched in mid-April by lawmakers ousted in the coup, formed a nascent national army called the People’s Defense Force (PDF) on May 5 with the goal of uniting the various local militias and forming alliances with well-armed ethnic rebel groups who have been fighting against the military for years.

“The real work for the NUG will be to bring everyone together. The groups in Chin state are very active now and their cooperation has been exemplary,” said Myanmar political analyst Than Soe Naing.

“They need to organize and help the scattered groups in the various townships and give them necessary guidance. Otherwise, the military will use a bigger force to crush the small individual resistance groups," he said.

Possibly complicating the effort, the military junta has designated the Chinland militia, the NUG and the PDF as terrorist groups.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert and Eugene Whong.

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