Socialist Alternative

India’s Covid catastrophe – fight for healthcare and vaccines for all

For more on India’s Covid crisis see Episode 41 of World to Win on Youtube


India is often called the vaccinator of the world because it is responsible for more than 60% of the world’s vaccine production. However, Covid infection and death rates in India are now completely out of control, reaching a near vertical trend with close to a quarter of a million now dead, and with only 2% of its population vaccinated. Scientists estimate that these rates could be understated by a factor of up to 60 because of a lack of testing and health infrastructure!

India experienced its first peak of Covid infections in November last year, so its leaders were not without warning. How has a country with a reputation as the vaccinator of the world allowed covid to run rampant in its population? The answer is the arrogance, corruption, and the profit motive which dominates the Indian government, led by the arch reactionary Narendra Modi. But it is not the Indian government alone that has blood on its hands. International capitalism has been a central force in driving this crisis.

Reactionary BJP government

On February 21, the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed a resolution declaring India victorious in the fight against covid thanks to the “able, sensible, committed and visionary leadership of Prime Minster Modi.” Not unlike Donald Trump in the US, mass political rallies were held, mass religious festival were allowed to take place, and Modi himself embarked on a widespread tour of the country. This was against the warnings of scientists and epidemiologists. No wonder #SuperSpreaderModi has been trending on twitter.

In mid-April, Modi also initiated a new scheme which aimed to liberalise (i.e. to invite in the profit motive) and regionalise the prices of 50% of vaccines produced in India. Concretely, this meant that regional states had to organise their own procurement of vaccines, at a higher price than that negotiated by the central government. This approach is designed to pit the different states against each other for vaccine access. It has been a common trope of the Modi government to blame states for their actions, while inflaming competition between them, in order to deflect blame from central government. More importantly, this approach allows the private corporations to make huge profits, while pricing out the poor.

Case in point. Vaccine production in India relies principally on two manufacturers: Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India. The latter’s CEO complained that they were only getting “profits” from sale of the vaccines to the central government and not “super profits”. Modi, who supports the interests of capital over workers, of course acquiesced.

But while we should be clear that the Modi government has done nothing to help the people of India, it alone is not responsible for the crisis currently shaking India to its foundations. The lack of health infrastructure goes back decades, including under the previous Congress Party-led government. The truth is that no capitalist government is innocent in this tragedy. Advanced capitalist countries are playing a critical role in perpetuating the covid crisis in India by hoarding vaccines, as well as maintaining vaccine patents which would allow others to independently manufacture their own.

Capitalist system to blame

On this question, it is important to look at the role of philanthropists like the multi-billionaire Bill Gates, himself a close friend of Modi. Gates was interviewed on Sky News about his project Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator which he launched in April 2020 to fight covid. He was asked “do you think it will be helpful for vaccine patents to be shared?” His answer:

“No. There’s only so many vaccine factories in the world and people are very serious about the safety of vaccines. So moving the vaccine production from J and J [Johnson and Johnson] factory into a factory in India is novel; it’s only because of our grants and our expertise that this can happen at all.”

This completely, and intentionally, misses the point – understandable given Gates’ desire to protect the interests of private capital. The lifting of vaccine patents is not a question of who can already produce them safely, but about sharing research with the intention of helping to develop building of essential infrastructure to manufacture vaccines in places like India. India, after all, is responsible for manufacturing the majority of the world’s vaccines, so why is it unfathomable that they could produce covid vaccines?

The truth is that billionaires like Bill Gates, as well as giant pharmaceutical corporations, oppose lifting vaccine patents because of the threat to their own profits. In the particular case of Gates, it is about preventing an alternative model for manufacturing vaccines that could compete with his ACT project. Socialists, by contrast, argue for the immediate lifting of all vaccine patents, not so that private corporations can compete with each other on a ‘level playing field’, but as a step toward reclaiming the products of our labour. We fight for building of militant mass movements, based on strikes and occupations, to take the pharmaceutical industry under democratic public ownership and workers’ control.