Civil rights, Economy / Finance, Health, Inequality and Social Justice, Neo-liberalism, Science and technology

Health policy and the sovereignty of the people

Mar 1 2021

By Riccardo Petrella* – Wall Street International Magazine

“No one will be left behind”

In the name of “national” health security, the dominant groups have taken measures that run counter to the much-vaunted objective of “no one will be left behind”. In reality, “vaccine nationalism” is a good alibi, behind which powerful multinational and global oligarchies act.

Injustice prevails

Even before the marketing of vaccines, whose exclusive right of ownership and use for 20 years was granted by the medical authorities to private companies pursuing a profit-making objective, the public authorities admitted that by the end of 2021, between 70 and 80% of the world’s population would remain outside the scope of vaccination.

UN secretary-general António Guterres confirmed on 17 February that 75% of all available vaccines have been used by only 10 countries and 130 countries have not received a single dose of vaccine to date. If all goes well, which is not guaranteed, we will have to wait until the end of 2024 to hope that the world’s population will reach the minimum level of herd immunity.

In the meantime, tens of millions of human beings will have disappeared prematurely with the blessing of the pharmaceutical companies’ shareholders. In addition, a few hundred million more people will have gone to swell the army of the impoverished and the working poor. Finally, the world’s top twenty billionaires will have seen their wealth increase by tens of billions (1).

The sovereignty of the people in all this?

Since the 1970s and 1980s, among the most significant processes of the demolition of democracy, we can include, in addition to the traditional opposition to democracy:

anti-statism linked, among other things, to the anti-communism of important fringes of associative movements, even progressive ones;

–the interest in “the costs of politics”. In the name of efficiency and the reduction of direct taxes, all forms of political choice have been reduced to a question of optimal management of the limited resources available and the reduction of public spending (with the exception of military spending);

–the promotion of the “third way” in the name of “beyond state and market”. This has turned out to be what it really is, namely “much less state” and “much more market”.

The “third way” was the Trojan horse by which the political class that had been elected to promote and defend universal rights, social justice, the most exploited and marginalized social classes, liberation from the abuses of the powerful, peace (to put it simply, Western social democracy), literally abdicated, submitting life on the Earth to the economic predatory imperatives of devastating globalization of nature and the society.

People like Blair and many other leaders like him in Europe and elsewhere (not to mention the American “progressives” who preach the cult of transition) bear a great historical responsibility for what has happened over the past 40 years.

I refer specifically to the “global waves” of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation of all forms of economic activity and in particular of all previously common and public goods and services.

We have thus seen the replacement of the rule of law and of the social and democratic government by a system called “global economic governance”, based on competition/exclusion, trade/negotiation/conflict between stakeholders.

This is the famous “stakeholders governance” based on the commodification of all essential and irreplaceable goods for life; on the marginalisation of human and social rights; on the privatisation of political power, as demonstrated by the imperial power of the world’s major private economic groups such as GAFAM (Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon-Microsoft), Big Pharma.

These waves have been facilitated, and “justified” by the dominant groups, by the increasing scientification and technologisation of life, increasingly dissociated from the values of social-democratic political constitutionalism (the Scandinavian model).

The dominance of the so-called “reasons” of science and technology in favour of a mystifying and utilitarian use of technoscience has played a major role in the processes mentioned. In two key manners. On the one hand, by making it possible to sweep away temporal limits (“the instant economy”, nanotechnologies, finance to the millionth of a second…) and spatial limits (the biological borders between species have jumped, “the economy without borders”).

On the other hand, by pushing local (national) governments to transfer the power of ownership, use and control, and therefore regulation of life on Earth, to the producers of new technology-intensive systems and services organised on a global scale.

The evaporation of people’s sovereignty

In this context, the decisive role of patents on living beings and artificial intelligence, granted to private for-profit companies, is clear. Patents are the highest expression, together with the market capitalisation of companies, of the primacy of the right of private interests to rule the world.

Patents (industrial, commercial…), like copyrights, have existed for a long time. But patents on living organisms (cells, molecules, genomes… of the plant, animal, and human world) are recent. They date back to 1980, when the Supreme Court of the United States authorised, for the first time in history, a company (i.e. General Electric) to patent for profit a molecule that it had “discovered” and which could be used for environmental purposes. For purely commercial and economic “reasons”, in 1998 the European Union adopted a directive on the patentability of life, following the example of the United States, despite strong opposition from important scientific, political, cultural, social, human and religious circles.

Since then, the river of patents (more than 110,000 in total on life and artificial intelligence) has overflowed everywhere, encouraging rapid and widespread private appropriation of the ownership and governance of life.

The case of the patents on vaccines against Covid-19 is an unfortunately dramatic confirmation of the evaporation of people’s sovereignty. At three levels.

The decision-making level

Rarely have national parliamentary institutions been directly and meaningfully involved in decisions on the promotion and funding of drug research and development and production (by whom, where, how many doses, how to fund…). Everything was decided by “technical” committees, often mixed (public and private), dominated by representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and the world of finance. In this context, scientists acted as servants and governments as supporting notaries, adopting legislation by government decrees, thus reducing the role of parliamentary institutions to little or nothing.

The level of knowledge and information sharing

Not only did people not participate, but they were systematically ignored and kept in the dark. The European Parliament had to bang its fist on the table to gain access to the contracts/agreements signed with a handful of global pharmaceutical companies by European public authorities on behalf of 650 million citizens. And when they gained access to the contract with AstraZeneca (an Anglo-Swedish multinational), the text was concealed, with 90% of the contract made illegible.

The European Parliament was ridiculed, and the Commission is responsible for this ridicule. A scandal. The European Commission claimed the obligation of secrecy imposed by companies and accepted by the public authorities. But how can representatives appointed by the elected representatives of the people grant the right to secrecy to companies and, on the other hand, deny access to information to the people who are the source of their power?

What is even more serious is that neither the citizens of Europe nor the majority of MEPs have fought to defend to the end the sacrosanct right of the people to information and democracy (2).

We still do not know how many billions of euros have been granted to private companies by public authorities. Some figures go as high as 93 billion. What we do know is that no Western pharmaceutical company would have started the development and production of vaccines if there had been no public authorities to finance them. The refusal to share knowledge and to give relevant information to the people through their representatives is an explicit act of violence against the right to knowledge. How can the people, how can citizens act with freedom and conscience if they are kept in ignorance? Based on what principle of legitimacy do governments continue to claim that they cannot give relevant information to citizens?

In an increasingly scientific and technological world, the right to relevant knowledge is just as fundamental as the right to clean water and air. The choice made by our leaders is extremely serious, especially since they have long claimed that governments decide on public health based on what scientists say. In so doing, they are instilling a conception of policy, not only in the field of health but also in the economy in general, where the main “reason” determining political choices is the “reason” of unshared, secret, insider (technocratic) knowledge.

A knowledge that is incomprehensible to almost the entire world population and de facto, the impregnable monopoly of the great lords of financial technocracy. In other words, the rulers admit that most human beings are ignorant and must remain so, and that, as in the past they had to obey essentially the will and reasons of God, they must today obey the reasons of science and technology.

The level of responsibility

According to private companies, public authorities have accepted that companies should not be held responsible for the negative consequences of vaccines and unforeseeable “accidents”. States have decided to assume such responsibility! The peoples were not even warned. Not only are people not put in a position to participate in decisions and to assume their responsibilities accordingly, but they are being given serious responsibilities without their knowledge and without recourse. The mockery of people’s sovereignty, made in the name of the current patent regime, could not be more discouraging.

Only one proposal. Farewell to the sovereignty of the people? No

The dominant social groups in the most powerful countries claim that their decisions are dictated by scientific and technical reasons. Science, they say, and with-it technology, dictates political choices. They claim that the sovereignty of the people belongs to the people but that it is expressed through the class of scientists and technologists, in practice through the class of their financiers and stakeholders. Ensuring the proper functioning and sustainability of this system is the function of patents regulated by the WTO TRIPS treaties. The power of science is not open, transparent, shareable. It is increasingly centralised and exclusive.

We are facing a massacre of democracy. Of course, vaccines and medicines are not designed or manufactured in parliamentary halls or ministerial offices. But science and health policy are. This is not and should not be done in the stakeholder clubs at the World Economic Forum, in the stock exchanges and in the shareholder offices of pharmaceutical and life science companies, but in “citizens’ houses”, in open public debates, in committees of elected representatives of the people, in referendums and popular consultations, in institutions of self-government.

Our proposal is the following: the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and other endemic diseases for the universal right to health and for the abolition of patents must be part of a clear and coherent struggle, at all levels, for the liberation of humanity and life from the domination of private finance and enslaving technocracy. Their domination is fuelled and reinforced by the processes of concentration of the private appropriation of scientific and technological power (precisely patents, among other tools). The time has come not for a transition (ecological, energy, digital or other) according to the rules of the existing system, but for the liberation of humanity from the “lords of life” and their new forms of colonisation of the world, which are at the root of the current mega upheavals and crises.

Notes

(1) – Together, the 20 richest people in the world earned around $1.77 trillion, or €1,440 billion more than in 2019, and increased their wealth by 24% over the previous year. Only 13 countries in the world have a GDP greater than the personal wealth of the 20 richest billionaires. Intolerable. At the top of the list, Jeff Bezos, 56, the head of Amazon, boasts a personal net worth of $193.7 billion in 2020, a 68.7% increase over 2019. Only 52 countries in the world (out of nearly 190) have a higher GDP.
(2) – On 18 February, thanks to a leak from an unknown source, the television programme Report was able to view the contract with AstraZeneca without deletion or concealment. This confirmed the clear subordination of public authorities to the interests of companies.02,27,2021

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*Riccardo Petrella, 79, Italian academic living in Belgium. Emeritus Professor, Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). Dr H.C. of eight universities from Sweden, Denmark, France, Canada, Argentina and Belgium. His research and teaching fields have been regional development, poverty, science and technology policy, globalisation.

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