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September 2021

Capitalist Profit System Kills

“Africa Starved of Vaccines”:
An Imperialist Crime

People line up for COVID-19 vaccine in Nairobi, Kenya, August 2021. (Photo: Brian Inganga / AP)

By Maeve

For many young people, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a crash course in the dysfunction and chaos of capitalist society, exposing fundamental truths about how this system works. For starters, profit trumps everything. At the start of the pandemic in the U.S., widespread testing, extensive contact tracing and quarantining those infected were on the order of the day. But this was deemed too costly and disruptive to the flow of profits. Instead, those who tested positive (if they could get a test at all) were sent home to infect their families, facilitating the rapid spread of the virus.

When it became clear that COVID was not going away, local and state governments cobbled half-measures together seeking to stem the tide. Hospital ICUs overflowed with patients and the dead were stashed in storage containers.1 This is not only the case in the U.S., where, at the time of printing, over 600,000 people have died from the virus, and many more have lost their livelihoods and loved ones. Worldwide, as we go to press, over 4 million have died from the virus and over 200 million cases have been confirmed. And that does not account for unconfirmed deaths and infections.

When vaccines were developed and finally available for widespread distribution, this was a big advance. But the tragedy did not end. Predictably, rich countries gobbled up the lion’s share of supply. This is not some random “inequity,” as liberals would have it. It is the workings of imperialism, which Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin explained is “the highest stage of capitalism.”2

A stark example is the situation in Africa. At this critical point in the pandemic, where wealthy nations are approaching 60% and 70% vaccination rates, only about 4.6% of people in African countries have been even partially vaccinated. All this while the world’s richest countries hoard 1.9 billion surplus doses – enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of the African continent.3 Citing the COVID crisis in Africa, on July 30 the World Health Organization’s chief scientist stated: “Inequitable manufacturing and distribution of vaccines is behind the wave of death, which is now sweeping across many low- and middle-income countries that have been starved of vaccine supply.”

Barely 3% of Africa's adult population has received vaccines, while imperialist countries are hoarding billions of doses of surplus doses. (Source: Our World in Data)

Profit from vaccine production has created nine new billionaires worldwide (Gulf News, 26 May). Key to those profits are intellectual property “rights.” These prevent the widespread dissemination of information on how to produce vaccines. And that means horrendously unequal distribution. That leaves poorer countries in the dust, lacking the infrastructure and capital needed to develop their own vaccines and without the resources to buy up enough doses to vaccinate their populations, and often lacking the facilities (like adequate refrigeration) to store and administer them. Meanwhile the U.S. purchased 653 million surplus doses, while states are now throwing away tens of thousands of stockpiled shots as they reach their expiration dates. An August 10 NPR article reported that Alabama tossed out 65,000 doses while Arkansas just got rid of another 80,000.

This is reminiscent of the Great Depression, when farmers dumped “surplus” milk while people starved, all because they could not sell it for a profit. However, unlike the dairy farmers of the Great Depression, the pharmaceutical companies have made killer profits selling to the highest bidders. This state of affairs is the result of what Marxists call the anarchy of production under capitalism, where the endless drive for profit governs production by individual capitalist firms, instead of production being guided by a rational plan, democratically decided on the basis of social needs. In fact, commodities are not produced under capitalism for human need but only for profit – and if they cannot be sold for profit, they are trashed. That means surplus vaccines aren’t ending up where they’re needed, in poor nations – they’re ending up in the garbage.

When COVID vaccine production was first beginning, placing orders to purchase vaccines meant the countries doing so faced significant financial risk. Wealthy nations could afford to take that risk by placing their eggs in several baskets, buying up stockpiles of multiple types of vaccines in numbers large enough to vaccinate their populations many times over. Meanwhile, countries such as Mexico and Peru, which had the money to buy them at full price but couldn’t take the risk of purchasing vaccines that might have proven ineffective, couldn’t make timely agreements with vaccine manufacturers. As the New York Times (31 March) noted: “Low-income countries made their first significant vaccine purchase agreements in January 2021 – eight months after the United States and the United Kingdom made their first deals.…”

While not having access to vaccines has meant deadly risk for millions of people in Africa and elsewhere, pharmaceutical companies have been riding high. Pfizer made $11 billion in sales in the first half of 2021, while BioNTech made a net profit of $4 billion in that same period – a 355% increase over what it made a year earlier (The Guardian, 11 August). Moderna? $4 billion in net profits. AstraZeneca trails the pack, raking in a meager $1.2 billion in vaccine revenue. But all is not lost for “poor” AstraZeneca. According to CEO Pascal Soriot, the company will soon raise its prices, as “we cannot be a non-profit forever.”

COVAX, the consortium sponsored by the World Health Organization to supply vaccine to poorer nations, has drastically slashed deliveries as producers failed to supply doses, sending them instead to rich capitalist countries.

As we go to press, certain sections of the population in the U.S. will be getting a third booster dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, while the vast majority of people in Africa have not gotten any doses. Not to worry, says Biden, as the U.S. has donated 110 million doses to the COVAX program, a World Health Organization initiative meant to counteract the unequal distribution of vaccines worldwide through donations from rich countries.

Yet the program has fallen flat. COVAX promised 100 million doses globally by the end of March, a goal not reached until July because of “supply bottlenecks” and “vaccine nationalism” (Politico, 5 August). And its goal of 640 million doses by August is nowhere on the horizon, with only 163 million doses delivered as of August 2.

But why does Africa have to rely on the supposed “magnanimity” of imperialist countries responsible for the continent’s historic colonization and “underdevelopment” (bourgeois economists’ euphemism for the effects of imperialist pillage)? The terrible obstacles to Africa producing, acquiring and distributing vaccines are rooted in the very nature of capitalist society.

In the late nineteenth century, Western European imperialist countries ramped up what is often called the “scramble for Africa.” Faced with the need to export capital to bolster the rate of profit, to acquire new markets as well as natural resources, almost all the continent was carved up by the rapacious colonialists.4 An infamous example took place in what was then called the Congo Free State, as its owner, King Leopold II of Belgium, cynically dubbed it. African people there were subjected to forced labor to produce ivory and rubber for the Belgian monarch and the U.S. financiers who were his junior partners. Workers, including children, had their hands cut off if they did not harvest enough rubber. Together with the horrendous exploitation of workers in the “mother countries,” the modern economies of Belgium, Britain, France, etc., were built on these foundations. The U.S. – where capitalism rose on the basis of genocide against Native Americans, the slave trade and mass chattel slavery – became a world power with its seizure of colonies in the Spanish-American War, becoming the dominant one via the two imperialist world wars.

1898 cartoon on imperialists’ division of world from China to Africa toLatin America. In Spanish-American War, Uncle Sam (in foreground) seizedPuerto Rico and Philippines as colonies, de facto control over Cuba. In1884-85 Berlin conference, U.S. joined European powers carving up Africa.  (Punch Magazine)

Even after most former colonies gained their independence (though Puerto Rico still has not!), they became semicolonial countries. (The word “neocolonialism” is sometimes used to convey a similar concept.) Formally independent now, they are still subjugated to imperialism through the world market, while U.S., British, French and other imperialist banks (and their agencies and cartels such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) largely call the shots. The imperialist nations’ corporations own innumerable factories, mines, agricultural and industrial enterprises in the semicolonial countries, so profits make their way back to coffers in New York, London and Paris. Their domination is backed up by their imperialist “diplomacy” and “defense” treaties, and enforced by their military might. (The U.S. alone has 29 “known” military bases and thousands of troops in Africa.)

As imperialist domination has meant “underdevelopment” of African infrastructure, this means massive obstacles to local vaccine production on the continent. Prior to the pandemic, only seven African countries had companies involved in vaccine production at any level, whether that be distribution or manufacturing.

Recently, New Jersey-based vaccine manufacturer Johnson & Johnson struck a deal with South Africa to bottle and package its vaccine locally to help inoculate South Africans more quickly and efficiently. But the opposite has occurred, with Johnson & Johnson shipping vaccines packaged in South Africa to Europe, while the rate of fully vaccinated people in the country, ravaged by the Delta variant, remains at about 8%. A J&J exec said that vaccines finished in South Africa would be exclusively available to South Africans later this year, but that might be too little too late for a country where the third wave saw vaccine-eligible citizens “dying by the dozens” (New York Times, 16 August).

On the other hand, China has supplied existing plants in several African countries with the raw materials and technology to produce their own vaccines. By July 6, Egypt was already producing 300,000 Sinovac vaccines a day, with plans to triple output if the supply of raw materials was maintained (Global Times, 6 July). China has also made plans with Morocco to help produce 5 million doses a month, and a deal has been reached between Algeria and China to produce the vaccines locally (Medicalxpress, 24 July). By June 20, China had administered 1 billion vaccines domestically and has delivered 770 million doses worldwide since September 2020, pledging to donate 550 million by the middle of next year. As part of its war drive against China, U.S. imperialism under Democratic president Joe Biden is of course waging a campaign against the Chinese vaccine – which can save untold numbers of lives – while the profit-driven imperialists starve Africa of vaccines.

The reason China can mobilize its industry so swiftly is because it is what Marxists call a bureaucratically deformed workers state. It has a planned economy where resources can be shifted from one sector of the economy to the next as needed. The world got a glimpse of what a planned economy could achieve in January 2020, when two new, 2,600-bed hospitals were built in the city of Wuhan in 10 days – start to finish.5 Nevertheless, the Stalinist bureaucrats in charge have allowed significant capitalist inroads into the country that threaten the long-term survival of the world’s largest and most powerful workers state.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union carried out its own large-scale medical aid program in Africa. The USSR pioneered a new freeze-drying technique for smallpox vaccines which allowed them to be distributed to countries with less developed infrastructures. 450 million of these vaccines were distributed to “developing” countries by the Soviet Union, leading to the eradication of the disease in less than two decades. But like China, the Soviet Union was also ruled by a Stalinist bureaucracy, with its anti-Marxist pretense that it could build “socialism in one country” – if only it could achieve “peaceful coexistence” with world capitalism. Instead, faced with imperialism’s relentless onslaught, the bureaucracy fragmented and caved to capitalist counterrevolution in the early ’90s, which devastatingly wiped out the remaining gains of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The USSR’s destruction helped imperialism launch new attacks and wars on one semicolonial country after another to tighten its grip on the exploited and oppressed. This gives an idea of just how crucial was the Trotskyist position defending the USSR against imperialism and counterrevolution (together with workers political revolution to oust the parasitic bureaucracy), and why this remains the case with China today.

Revolutionary Marxists understand that the COVID pandemic is an international problem calling for an international solution. The anarchy of capitalist production has left hundreds of millions of unvaccinated people in the lurch, all to satisfy the appetite for profit. This highlights two of capitalism’s key contradictions: production has become more and more social (which society as a whole depends on) – but ownership remains private; while the productive forces’ increasingly international nature clashes with the national boundaries created when capitalism was a rising system. In its highest phase, imperialism, capitalism is reactionary on a world scale; today its terminal decay is a deadly threat to us all.

The pandemic has shown that capitalist societies cannot meet the basic needs of their own populations, let alone address a global pandemic. An internationally planned economy would put technology and resources to work to provide vaccines for all and eliminate world hunger – just for starters. But that requires “expropriating the expropriators.” The ills of the capitalist order cannot be fixed with reformist band-aids. They must be uprooted through world socialist revolution. If you are interested in joining the fight to make that a reality, get in touch and let’s talk. ■

  1. 1. See “Coronavirus and Capitalism” in The Internationalist No. 59, March-April 2020.
  2. 2. See V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916).
  3. 3. See Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Africa Reacts to U.S. Vaccine Distribution at Home and Abroad,” July 29, and ONE Campaign: “Data Dive: The Astoundingly Unequal Vaccine Rollout.”
  4. 4. This culminated in the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-85, convoked by Germany and attended by Britain, France, Belgium, the U.S. and nine other imperialist countries. By 1900, all but 10% of African territory had been claimed by European powers.
  5. 5. See “A Tale of Two Cities: Wuhan – New York” in The Internationalist No. 59, March-April 2020.