INSIDE LABOUR | Boom times for some who hope to profit from the pandemic

Terry Bell (supplied)
Terry Bell (supplied)
  • There is a need to fight for universal access to Covid-19 treatment.
  • Positive steps must be taken to avoid losing another generation. 
  • More than 140 world leaders and experts, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, issued a call for any vaccine developed to combat Covid-19 to be a "peoples' vaccine":  it should be patent-free, mass produced and available to all at no cost.

Three clarion calls were sounded this week for the labour movement, its allies and and every democratically inclined group or individual to rally for looming battles on the Covid-19 front. 

Firstly, there is the need to fight for universal access to any Covid-19 treatment and then, over the longer term, to ensure that positive steps are taken to avoid yet another lost generation in South Africa.

These calls came in three separate reports that emerged this week. The first concerned a locally little noticed share price rise on the New York Stock Exchange; the others dealt with the position of children in South Africa.

On Tuesday there was a surge in the share price of Regeneron, one of the top biotech companies in the United States. And what it signalled was that the financial vultures are gathering, hoping to grow still fatter on the Covid-19 pandemic, just as they have on the treatments for a range of other, especially critical and life-threatening, diseases.

The share price rose when it was announced that the US federal government had paid the company $450 million to manufacture and supply a Covid-19 treatment Regeneron is still investigating.  This "anti-body cocktail", seems promising and is in advanced trials, so the speculative cash registers started ringing.

This was scarcely surprising since the cash injection came on the back of reports that the US government had already agreed to cover 80% of Regeneron's coronavirus research and development costs.  And it did so with no requirement that the final products be affordable.

Boom times 

This private company control over pricing is par for the course for the pharmaceutical industry which is one of the most profitable sectors in the business environment.  The fact that President Donald Trump, with an election looming in November, has guaranteed that all Americans will be given free access to any successful Covid-19 medication also spells boom times under the present system.

If Regeneron - or any other US company for that matter - develops a successful vaccine, the company will set the price and the American people, through their taxes, will pay for their "free" medication.  The US administration will also insist that patents awarded to companies be honoured and that the rest of the world pays what the companies demand.

The scene for this to happen was already set with the passing by the US Senate in March of the much lauded $2 trillion Coronavirus Bill.  Clauses in the Bill that would have guaranteed open access and affordability were removed, despite objections from a minority of senators.

Small wonder then, that Regeneron's share price has leapt by 67% this year.  And investors do not seem perturbed by the fact that, on 14 May, more than 140 world leaders and experts, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, issued a call for any vaccine developed to combat Covid-19 to be a "peoples' vaccine":  it should be patent-free, mass produced and available to all at no cost.

An international fight is clearly in the offing to make the "peoples' vaccine" demand a reality.  At the same time steps must urgently be taken domestically to redress the shocking levels of inequality that have been highlighted in the wake of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Stats SA issued a report, Child poverty in South Africa: A Multiple Overlapping Deprivation Analysis. It revealed that more than six out of 10 (62.1%) of children under 17 were "multidimensionally poor". 

This is defined as children living in households where they are "deprived of at least three out of seven dimensions of poverty (Health, Housing, Nutrition, Protection, Education, Information, Water and Sanitation)".

But the statistics in this report date from 2015. The situation now, especially since the lockdown in March, is generally accepted as much worse. In October last year, for example, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) reported that nearly three out of every 10 children under the age of five were stunted, a clear indication of malnutrition.

For more than 100 days now, many of these children, who relied on childcare centres for often the only meal they would have every day, have gone hungry.  Which is why there was widespread support for a judgment handed down in the Pretoria High Court this week that ordered pre-school centres to be opened immediately. But the judgment also highlighted the gross inequalities that exist.

Because, lost in much of the reporting was the fact that Judge Hans Fabricius added that centres could only open when they complied with "prescribed safety measures". The small minority of nursery schools and other pre-school establishments in the more affluent areas, whose representatives took the matter to court, have already indicated that they comply and are ready to open.

But the overwhelming majority of perhaps 32 000 childcare centres in the country could not afford the estimated R4 000 it would take to comply. Yet these are centres that provide at least a sanctuary for young children whose parents are at work or, more often than not, away from home, desperately seeking work.

Even the majority of the 14 000 childcare centres registered with the social development department (SDD) and that qualify for a subsidy do not have the resources to meet the Covid-19 safety requirements. Their subsidy - unpaid since the lockdown - is just R17 per child per day for no more than 264 days a year.  This amount, which the SDD admitted this week was "inadequate" has to pay for food, equipment, incidental expenses and salaries.

Many of these centres will probably never be able to reopen. But to aid as many as possible and to help at least some of the millions of children now in more need than ever, the Cape Town-based Centre for Early Childhood Development has launched an appeal to raise R2.4 million to pay for "prescribed safety measures".

Various other non-governmental organisations and community groups have also stepped in with stop-gap measures through feeding schemes to alleviate what appears to be growing levels of widespread hunger. Such actions reveal how many more people in generally more affluent situations have become aware of the awful prospects ahead if we continue to cripple most of our children.

Every citizen, let alone every unionised worker, should now be aware of the situation we - and mainly another generation of young children - face. The Bill of Rights and existing policies, that await implementation, spell out what needs to be done.  

To paraphrase the Freedom Charter:  We, the people should declare that the powers that be must ensure that South Africa truly belongs to all who live it.

Terry Bell is a writer, journalist, broadcaster, social activist and sometime teacher. He has catholic interests but specialises in political and economic analysis and labour.

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