According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the coronavirus epidemic has now claimed more than 15,000,000 deaths around the world. We examine the staggering death figures and how they reveal wider political failures in order to protect public health worldwide and close the international vaccine gap. “Western governments and rich corporations who are based primarily in the West have done very little to advance vaccine inequity or to help the entire world end this pandemic faster,” says Achal Prabhala, coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, who adds that many poor countries have also not used all the policy tools at their disposal.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
The World Health Organization has estimated that the COVIDNearly 15,000,000 people have been directly or indirectly killed by the -19 pandemic. This number is much higher than the official estimates of five-and-a half million deaths worldwide. Its reportAccording to the World Health Organization, there were 14.9 Million extra deaths in the past two years. This includes people who died of cancer. COVID, as well as those who died due to the pandemic’s impact on overwhelmed healthcare systems. Dr. Samira Asma of the World Health Organization talked about the agency’s findings Thursday.
DR. SAMIRA ASMA:We released today a staggering 14.9 million extra deaths since the pandemic began, which occurred in 24 months, from January 2020 to Dec 2021. We also reported today that the majority of these deaths were in Southeast Asia, followed by Europe and Americas.
AMY GOODMAN:The WHO report also suggests 4.7 million people have died in India alone from the pandemic — far higher than India’s official death toll at just over half a million. All this is to say that NBCNews reports that the United States has reached a sad milestone of 1 million officials COVIDAlthough deaths are still high, many public health officials believe that this is also an undercount.
We’re joined right now by two guests. Dr. Abraar Karn is an infectious disease physician at Stanford University in California. Achal Prabhala, who coordinates the AccessIBSA campaign, which promotes access to medicine in South Africa, Brazil, and India, is also a coordinator. We normally speak to him in Bangalore, India, but he’s joining us today from South Africa.
Let’s begin with you, Achal. If you can talk about the massive undercount that we’re looking at, this number of 15 million people dead in the world because of the COVID pandemic?
ACHAL PRABHALA:Good morning Amy and good morning to all your listeners.
I was surprised by the Indian government’s response to the incident. WHOReport on excess deaths and its estimate for the true toll of pandemic in India. But it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who was following mortality news through the pandemic. Independent researchers and magazines have previously provided estimates, such as The EconomistThis suggested that we were looking for numbers that were much, far higher than those that were officially released.
The most important thing for me as a citizen of India and resident of India is that the Indian government has so vociferously denied that the numbers were there WHO released. And the reason that they’re loath to admit that nearly 5 million people, as opposed to a little over 500,000 people by their estimate, died during the pandemic possibly of COVIDIt points to a failure in politics. And the political failure is not restricted to the government’s actions or inactions during the pandemic alone, but points to a much broader political failure of failing to protect public health in the country. It’s, to me, an incredibly tragic reminder that if we can’t even count our dead or know them, how can we possibly be expected to keep them alive?
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about both places — usually you’re in India, now you’re in South Africa, both key places when it comes to the pandemic — how the governments have dealt with both differently and what you think needs to happen now. In the United States — and we’ll talk about this with Dr. Abraar Karan in a minute — with over a million deaths, this incredibly grim milestone, the funding for COVIDThe amount of vaccine access for the rest, as well as the approval of the money being used for Ukraine, is far less than the amount currently being allocated.
ACHAL PRABHALA: There are a couple of really important things here, Amy, that are, I think, being buried under, of course, the other pressing emergencies that the world is dealing with, but also, I think, in a rush to declare the end of the pandemic in the hope that it may actually be over — and, of course, it’s not.
The first, I think, is that I’ve been on Democracy Now!I have spoken several times about how Western governments and wealthy corporations, based mainly in the West, have done very little to improve vaccine inequity and help the world end this pandemic sooner. And often it’s set up as a death match between bad rich governments and good poor governments. Unfortunately, I live in a poor country. That’s just not the case. This is where the poor countries are most responsible. They also have to accept responsibility. I think that what disappoints me the most is that poor countries have failed to accept responsibility for what they could have done, right through the pandemic.
So, let’s take the TRIPSFor example, waiver. South Africa and India went to the World Trade Organization a year and half ago to request a pause. COVIDYour risk of dying is dramatically reduced by using COVID — so that drugs and vaccines in the pandemic could be more widely available. It’s been a year and a half. There’s been almost no movement — in fact, negative movement. And the truth is that India and South Africa are asking for permission to do something that they’re already allowed to do. They have a full legal right, under the World Trade Organization’s own rules and emergency exceptions, to create what we would call a national TRIPS waiver. Surprisingly, Brazil’s government did this last September without waiting for permission from the World Trade Organization. We’ve been asking a year and a half for permission to do something we’re already allowed to do. And at this stage of the pandemic, I think it’s ridiculous for poor countries to blame everything on what Western countries aren’t doing for them, and I think they have to begin to think very seriously about what they can do for themselves.
And the second piece of this puzzle, which I think also there’s been inaction around, is to figure out how to have access to mRNA technology. At the moment, mRNA vaccines are by far our best chance at protecting against transmission of the Omicron variant, which is why in the United States you get a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as a booster, and you can’t actually get a J&J vaccine, or, in Europe, you can’t get an AstraZeneca vaccine as a booster. But that’s all we have. The entire country of India is without an mRNA vaccine.
More importantly, they are likely to be the first to develop an Omicron booster, or a bivalent booster, that works against Omicron or the Delta variant. This is a significant advance. These vaccines will be available in the fall. This vaccine will be the only vaccine that is worth having anywhere in the world. And 92 poor countries — about half the world’s population — has no access to those vaccines. In two years we’re likely to have things like an HIVvaccine on the MRNA platform or all cancer medicines. We don’t have access to any of those mRNA vaccines and medicines, either in the present or in future.
But we also haven’t fully noticed, and the governments of these countries need to understand what they don’t have and figure out ways that they can get them. And I think a part of the reason that countries like India aren’t doing so is it is again an admission of political failure. The idea that they need something that they don’t have and have to work to get it, I think, points to a kind of weakness, which they don’t want to admit.
AMY GOODMAN:Of course COVIDIt is so personal for so many people around the globe. Achal, what about your Indian parents?
ACHAL PRABHALA:Amy and my parents are now in the eighties. They received an AstraZeneca vaccination as a booster a couple weeks ago. So they got their third shot. We don’t have fourth shots authorized in India as yet. I was eligible to receive the same booster a few more weeks later. I’m much younger than my parents; I don’t worry too much about myself. My parents are now in their eighties and have a vaccine that provides a level of protection of 0% against transmission of Omicron variant. This is in contrast to a slightly higher level of protection if they had been able get an mRNA booster similar to what you and your family received in the United States. That’s not available to us.
And the thing that irks me the most is that the government of India hasn’t noticed. The government of India hasn’t done anything about creating access to mRNA vaccines now and the mRNA technology in the future to protect us. And this is something that very few other poor countries have done. And this strikes me as absurd, because what they’re doing, essentially, is trying to delay the sort of eventual failure of their efforts to contain this pandemic within their countries.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re in South Africa, usually in India, because you’re making a film, about what?
ACHAL PRABHALA: I’m making a film on how 25 years of pharmaceutical monopolies have wreaked harm around the world in unprecedented levels and fundamentally changed the world in ways that are yet to be resolved, in ways that were evident in pockets of people who had HIV or hepatitis C or certain kinds of cancers, but then, once the pandemic hit, became a universal concern, which is yet to be resolved but is a powerful force in the world that’s been shaping it in a way that I think very few of us have noticed.
AMY GOODMAN:AccessIBSA’s coordinator is Achal Prabhala. IBSA stands for I-B-S-A, India, Brazil, South Africa.