Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash
Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

Global union federations in Asia Pacific urge to end the “vaccine apartheid”

published 26 November 2021 updated 3 December 2021

Update – 29 November 2021 – The 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was scheduled to take place from 30 November to 3 December 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. However, due to the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, it was decided on 26 November to postpone the Ministerial Conference. Despite MC12 being postponed, the 30 November planned activities aiming to support the TRIPS waiver are confirmed to be going ahead since the new variant makes the need for the TRIPS waiver even more urgent.

Global union federations (GUFs) regional branches in Asia-Pacific have called for support of the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) waiver campaign to end the “vaccine apartheid” in the region.

The regional entities of Education International, Public Services International (PSI), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF Global), the Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI), the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) and UNI Global Union, acknowledged that public funding has paved the way for scientific developments to fight the coronavirus – “but now trade rules that protect corporate interests are threatening access to vital medicines and equipment, putting the lives of millions at risk”.

That is why many governments around the world – supported by unions and civil society – are calling for the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive intellectual property protection measures for COVID-19 vaccines, medicines and medical supplies.

Countries continue to block TRIPS waiver

Regional GUFs went on to note that, under pressure from a broad alliance of unions and civil society, blocking countries had to back off and agree to come to the negotiation table. Yet, some, for example the UK and Switzerland, as well as the European Union, are still denying that the TRIPS waiver proposed by India and South Africa is necessary.

Highlighting that the WTO Ministerial Council will start on 30 November without an official negotiating text on the TRIPS Waiver, GUFs in the Asia-Pacific region insisted that “we must continue to urge all countries, especially the EU, UK, and Switzerland to support the TRIPS Waiver. With our action and pressure, we can make it happen. Our campaign must continue until everyone, everywhere has access to lifesaving treatments and vaccines.”

Regional union action on 30 November

GUFs are urging trade unions and activists in the region to join the action on 30 November by:

  • Being active on Twitter: Send a tweet to the targeted governments of countries that are blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal; Use the key hashtags: #TRIPSwaiver and #MC12.
  • Posting a picture on social media with a message along the hashtag #TRIPSWaiver. Tag @PSIAsiaPacific @eduintAP @ITFAPAC @iufap @uniapro @BWIglobal on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Writing a letter to the European Commission, the United Kingdom, Swiss and German government to let them know that private profits must not be put ahead of public health. A model letter can be downloaded here.
  • Submitting the letter to their local consulate or embassy and taking a photo of union members taking action.

Civil society’s push for the postponement of 12th Ministerial Conference of WTO and agreement on a waiver on intellectual property

On 23 November, over 130 global, regional and national civil society organisations (CSOs) from around the world – including Education International – wrote to the Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), urging them to postpone the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) to be convened in Geneva, Switzerland, from 30 November to 3 December 2021, in the midst of a global pandemic with rising cases across the globe and spiking in the heart of Europe, where the Ministerial Conference is taking place. CSOs also consider that COVID-19 has exposed the WTO’s systemic priority of profits over people through the monopolies that are guaranteed to Big Pharma under TRIPS.

The WTO has utterly failed to resolve the vaccine apartheid that is a direct result of the monopolies that its Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) confers on multinational pharmaceutical companies that have benefitted from massive public subsidies. The COVID-19 TRIPS waiver could had been agreed by the WTO’s General Council in Geneva, which has already approved numerous other waivers. Yet, the proposal is not yet agreed a year after it was tabled.

They concluded by saying that “for years now, the WTO has faced a crisis of legitimacy for its failure to address, and its furthering of, systemic instability, inequalities and indebtedness on poorer countries, workers, women, indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare these deep ruptures between the global North and global South, rich and poor, privileged and vulnerable.”

Education International also commended the adoption of a resolution by the European Parliament calling on the European Commission to support the TRIPS waiver during the WTO Ministerial Conference.

Education unions for vaccine equity

Early during the sanitary crisis, education unions rallied for vaccine equity, stressing that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, and that access to COVID-19 vaccines for teachers and education support personnel everywhere is essential for a safe and permanent return to onsite education.

They are adamant that the first condition for educators everywhere to be vaccinated is ensuring sufficient supplies of the vaccines in all countries. Recent developments of a new COVID variant that carries an “extremely high number” of mutations that may drive further waves of disease by evading the body’s defenses, underlines the high need for vaccine equity and that the Ministerial Conference of the WTO must include an agreement on the TRIPS waiver if it is not to become another failure in the records of the WTO’s Ministerial Conferences.

As has been demonstrated in a recent legal opinion, states that are party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) should not oppose the waiver if they are to comply with their human rights obligations.