It has been almost exactly one year now, that the human race has been so tragically forced to cohabit this Earth with the destructive COVID-19 virus, a virus which has taken the lives of over 1.5 million of our number, and has come to overshadow so much more of our day-to-day lives than anyone would have been expected to predict upon its first cases.
But despite this, the human race did not capitulate. We stand, going into 2021, on the verge of multiple widespread vaccination projects, which, upon enactment, shall once again begin the restoration of prosperity, health and economic security – all of which such a pandemic placed into jeopardy. We are fighting back against the crisis we have been facing, finally now beginning to sense the end of this long, dark tunnel! Admittedly, the tunnel has been far darker for us in the United Kingdom, than, say, Vietnam, but nonetheless, we humans shall once again prove our capacity and will to pull ourselves from crisis.
And yet, as a leftist, I am still regularly presented with iteration after iteration of that same soundbite, that doubt of this will: “Without profit, the innovators won’t have the incentive to produce crisis solutions.” To the market fundamentalist, it is a fundamental truth of our universe – compassion, reputation, survival, empathy, identity, citizenry, intellectual curiosity, these mean nothing to the innovator, for they are not monetary means of perpetual accumulation. The innovator’s sole incentive, in the sociopathic manner which such an analysis might ascribe to them, is to progress up the grand all-encompassing hierarchy at the centre of the human experience, the volatile entity responsible for assigning one to privilege or precarity, and cementing the divide between the two.
Regardless of the extensive history of mutual aid, spanning from our evolutionary ancestors to the present day (a phenomenon that would far eclipse the existence of economic class in both time and scale), the question of incentive shall seemingly forever be invoked as a supposed argument for the necessity of free-market capitalism in times of crisis. So how does this question fare when applied to our current situation in vaccine development?
Of the many potential vaccines that are undergoing research and trials across the world, three have asserted themselves as front-runners. Pfizer and Moderna account for the manufacture of two of these three, being two US-based big pharma corporations whose notorious and long-running exploitation of the needs of their customers has granted them enough money to utilise almost all the labour and resources they might desire. A third big pharma corporation, AstraZeneca, has played a large role in the third.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine, however, has numerous advantages. Where Pfizer’s vaccine (which, may I add, was initially developed by a German Biotech company largely funded by the publicly-owned European Investment Bank) requires storage at temperatures below -70 degrees centigrade, AstraZeneca’s is transportable at refrigerator temperatures, yet its efficacy may still nonetheless rival Pfizer’s, having been tested with 90% efficacy at certain doses. Furthermore, many countries, including India, do not currently have the infrastructure to accommodate Pfizer’s temperature requirements. The main difference, however, is that AstraZeneca has confirmed that they shall not be selling their vaccine at a profit throughout the duration of the pandemic, pricing it at almost 1/10 of the Pfizer vaccine and extending its outreach to a much more vast array of people, all across the world. And AstraZeneca is continuing to push its innovation forth to the world, even without the profit incentive.
But while the company were not deterred by lack of profiteering opportunity, their innovators continuing to innovate all the same, what happened next would prove a cruel indication of those who were actually deterred by the lack of a profit incentive. Ever since that announcement, AstraZeneca has taken a drastic hit in shares. Shortly following that promise alone, the company lost roughly £4 billion in value.
Now AstraZeneca is by no means a flawless company, but this was a moment in which they were prepared to put profit on hold for the collective good of all people on this Earth, and they were met with a form of indirect sabotage – not from their innovators, or the people actually crucial in making the vaccine, but from the millionaires and billionaires who appear only to back projects they deem personally profitable, ones which exploit worker and consumer vulnerabilities. It’s no surprise that the capitalist class would want to continuously espouse this false ideological narrative of “innovators need a profit incentive,” as it’s to save their own skins; in reality, it is not the innovators with the will and power to stifle innovation or crisis solution, it is themselves!
Luckily, AstraZeneca will continue to fight COVID-19 regardless, in part undoubtedly due to their close partnership with the publicly-owned Oxford University. This isn’t the only case in which publicly owned and non-profiteering entities have had remarkable results in vaccine development either. The fact that the tiny economy of Cuba has recently embarked on clinical trials for its second vaccine candidate, the only nation in Latin America to have a WHO-recognised vaccine candidate in development, is astounding proof that reliance on the support of capitalists doesn’t have to be a part of the equation.
The brutal reality is that COVID-19 is not the final crisis humanity has to face. With a looming climate emergency, crises may well be coming at us thick and fast, and if the power to allow or veto innovation is left with the investor-capitalist class, this could be extremely dangerous. I wish I could tell you this is purely hypothetical, but they’ve done it before: science and technology have been routinely suppressed by the gargantuan oil industry and all the resources at their disposal, including suppressing technology for electric cars in the 1990s.
Furthermore, guaranteed profitability (i.e. what the capitalists are after) will always favour the short-term projects over the more experimental, long-term but potentially more consequential projects. Taking the power of investment back from this class is not just a matter of preference, it may be a matter concerning the lives of millions of people.
My advice, therefore, would be to do just that. Nationalise, socialise, democratise. Whether it’s the banks, the private capital operated by capitalists through investment, or the corporations producing and distributing themselves, all of it must be expropriated and relocated to public, democratic control. Only then can we ensure that the workers, consumers and communities actually impacted by the technology or product actually can orient them towards their own interests, along with taking their rightful share of the profits they helped create. And if you’re an investor, sad that such a system would end your cushy income “earned” from moving around money for exponential accumulation, taking profit from other people’s hard work, then I would advise you to get a real job and join the workforce.
The point is, put simply, our economic system needs more than a “Great Reset” or “Green New Deal” if we want to make sure we can guarantee affordable solutions to crises. We live under a reality where the richest man in the world can almost double his net worth during a pandemic, while so many citizens worry for their livelihoods, and it’s because the distribution of funds, the management of industry, and the decision whether to steer ourselves away from crisis, are in the hands of a tiny group of unelected, exploitative profit-seekers.
Free market capitalism has shown, repeatedly, that it is prepared to forgo preserving the past or preparing for the future, in favour of a quick buck in the present. Humanity, with all its will and power, deserves far better than this.