The politics and economics of Covid-19 | Sunday Observer

The politics and economics of Covid-19

31 October, 2021

“Limiting global capacities to produce vaccines in a context of global pandemic, including through maintaining intellectual property rights on technologies that were developed mostly thanks to public funding, is a major moral failure and a nonsense in a global health perspective. Indeed, opposing the waiver of TRIPS (Trade-Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement has made the global community lose a precious time. It is time to support the waiver.” – Pauline Londeix (Co-founder, Observatoire Transparence Medicaments)

Knowing how to balance one’s health and wealth, as an individual or as a nation, is an extremely important factor of the happiness and wellbeing of the respective entity. One without the other has proven futile since it is not easy to enjoy the benefits of one without the other. Learning and implementing such balancing acts have become lifesaving strategies for countries around the world during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Countries such as South Korea and New Zealand have shown their ability to fight the pandemic while keeping their economies performing well while others like India and Brazil are paying the price of prioritising the economy and or their leaders’ political gains over the health by sacrificing their citizens almost at the rate of three deaths per minute. If the policymakers think about the short-lived popularity and their chances of being re-elected to be in power, then they have to factor in the general consensus of the people and analyse how the majority of their constituents prioritise between health and wealth.

Even if the statisticians and or the economists show the numbers favoring the economy the policy makers will have to think objectively whether to go by those numbers or to take a risk and prioritise saving lives. Because the other choice, that is, saving the economy, will undoubtedly increase the number of deaths and most of the survivors will be experiencing the hardships of losing their loved ones which may turn them against the policymakers whom they would hold responsible for those deaths.

Following an emotionally charged senate committee hearing which lasted over a period of six months the 1200-page report submitted to the Brazilian senate recommended that the President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with “crimes against humanity” together with several other charges. Brazil is one of the worst affected countries by the pandemic with more than 600,000 deaths.

The inquiry committee requested charges against over fifty people including several ministers and ex-ministers and three of the President’s sons who have been linked to corrupt deals in their capacities as government officials. Bolsonaro has repeatedly played down the seriousness of the virus, at times calling it “nothing more than a little flu”, promoting treatments that science has proven ineffective, campaigning against vaccinations, and not implementing lock down measures at times they were needed the most.

Though the original report had recommended “homicide” and “genocide” charges against the President, especially due to his discriminatory practices against the indigenous people of the country, the committee has replaced them by “crime against humanity” at the last minute. International media reports have highlighted several other countries where the selfish decisions made by their governments and policymakers showed a direct correlation to unusually high numbers of Covid deaths.

Detailed investigations have shown discrimination against certain groups, delays, and irregularities in the process of acquisition of test kits and vaccines due to corrupt tender procedures and in some cases even unethical promotion of “early treatment for Covid” where private hospitals and health insurers could take advantage of people who were afraid of the virus.

When the governments reported the daily death tolls, they always showed the breakdown to indicate that the majority who died were over 60 years of age and some others had pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Such strategies were used to indicate that those deaths were unavoidable irrespective of what the government did.

Members of the opposition parties tried to capitalise by blaming the inefficiencies of the ruling parties and the ruling parties accused the opposition of playing politics with a human tragedy, proving the adage “it takes one to know one” while their constituents were dying at alarming rates.


Even though there are several vaccines now, that could slow down the rate at which Covid-19 is spreading, most of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies did not show an interest in looking for any vaccine against Covid since there was no guarantee on the return on their investment.

Pharmaceutical companies did not want to repeat what they experienced during previous viral outbreaks such as Zika and SARS where the diseases retreated rapidly leaving companies with almost zero “Return on Investment (ROI)” after they invested hundreds of millions of dollars interrupting even other high priority programs. However, almost two years into the pandemic there are hundreds of companies developing vaccines with dozens already in the market and others in clinical trial stages.

The two main reasons for pharmaceutical companies to join the vaccine race were the sheer size of the pandemic and the unprecedented levels of public funding. Moreover, a few months into the pandemic the evidence appeared that person to person transmission of Covid-19, unlike previous viruses, is much faster and therefore the possible market for the vaccine would be much bigger than previously suspected.

For big pharmaceutical companies which used to shoulder the high-risk of investment in research and development, manufacturing and distribution, billions of dollars of government funding were certainly a game changer during this pandemic. Under the “Operation Warp Speed” of the US Government, some of these companies received billions of dollars through both early-stage investments and purchase agreements.

Many experts now believe that Covid-19 will become endemic and recur in the human population for years to come. What that means is that even for companies that have agreed to provide the vaccine non-profit basis during the pandemic there would be a substantial market for future vaccines and booster shots starting as early as 2022.

As soon as they announced the completion of the clinical trials there was a significant increase in the share prices of these companies.

There were some pharmaceutical companies with a share value of less than $1 prior to Covid-19, that were about to be delisted from the stock exchange, that experienced an 8000% increase in the share value after the vaccine. Since a major part of the accelerated process of research, trials and production were funded by public money, letting the companies hold on to the intellectual property (IP) rights seems to be a process of socialising all the risk and privatising all the profit, not to mention the death toll in the countries that could not afford to get the vaccine sooner.

Repeated requests by countries such as India and South Africa indicating the importance of intervention of the policymakers in the US and the European Union to get the companies to agree to waive the IP rights fell on deaf ears. Perhaps it was a good opportunity for the rest of the world to see how powerful the pharmaceutical lobby is. Gains to big pharmaceutical companies came not only through their bank accounts but also as an image builder where people around the world started seeing them as life savers instead of heartless drug pushers profiting from selling high-priced drugs to sick and vulnerable struggling for their dear lives.

Therefore, not only the cost-benefit analysis in the economic sense but also the social, cultural, ethical, and moral values should be considered when making decisions about human lives, irrespective of the selfish ambitions of the policy makers to be in power after the pandemic and or after the next election.

If the decision is to safeguard the economy, then who benefits the most by that decision? Would that decision make more poor people lose their lives while the rich makes more money? If the policy secures the wealth over health of the nation, then is it the public or the private wealth that is being safeguarded? Has the decision been made with the consensus of the medical experts, economists, sociologists, legal experts, political scientists, and community leaders? Does party politics have anything to do with the decision? These are some of the questions the public should seek the answers for before they make any judgements about these decisions and the policy makers who are responsible for such decisions.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]