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Change or “Plus ça change…”

By Clara Affun-Adegbulu
on May 6, 2021

Approximately 491 days ago, the first cluster of COVID-19 cases was reported to the WHO and the infectious agent, a novel coronavirus, was identified. Since then we’ve expanded our knowledge of geography and added words and phrases such as WFH (working from home to the uninitiated), PPE, flattening the curve, contact tracing, herd immunity, lockdown, quarantine, super-spreader, social distancing, essential workers, zooming and shecession. And because the pandemic is nothing if not generous, yesterday I learnt a new one while writing this piece – Comirnaty. Hint, it’s one of the elixirs of life in these COVID times and is produced by a company whose name begins with a “P” and ends with an “R”. I’m sure the COVID aficionados know what I am referring to here.

At the same time as all this, the societal unease that had been brewing for a while in many parts of the world finally began to explode to full view. Calls for social justice became louder and harder to ignore – in 2020 for instance, we saw the Black Lives Matter protests break out in multiple countries globally, and the push to decolonise…well everything, gained even more momentum.

Nonetheless one thing that has not been given the attention it deserves, in my opinion, is the role of capitalism in social injustice. This is particularly striking in our own field of Global Health where we know that health is shaped mainly by how income, wealth and other resources are distributed. Capitalism is why some people – women, ethnic/religious/gender minorities, those with disabilities and those in lower socioeconomic classes – have been disproportionately affected by both the disease and/or its impacts on life in general. It is why talks of solidarity at the beginning of the pandemic have revealed themselves to be nothing more than empty talk. It is why there is even a debate about whether pharma companies and richer countries should share intellectual property to foster the development of supplies that could help end a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. Most absurd of all, it is why news of one couple’s divorce, something that should be entirely private, sent shockwaves across the global health and development world with many (hopefully unfunded) fears of how this could have negative impact on, yes, global health and “development”. It is mindboggling that any individual(s) has/have this much money and power!

Yet, life is full of surprises and capitalism it seems, is not omnipotent. I woke up this morning to the wonderful news that the US, arguably one of the most capitalist societies in world, has come out in support of the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19, albeit only for vaccines for the time being. Could this be the beginning of the much dreamed of real change or is it just a mirage? Some, including myself, would say the latter, but being an eternal optimist too, I hope we are all wrong.

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