RESURJ member Sachini Perera made this intervention during the #VaccineJustice Teach-in co-organized by African Center for Biodiversity (ACBIO), Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), Global Justice Now, Realising Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), Transnational Institute (TNI), and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).
This intervention builds on a previous reflection by Sachini: Covid-19 Vaccine, Economic Justice and Bill Gates; A Moment of Reckoning for SRHR Movements
As the previous interventions by my colleagues have shown, vaccine justice is about challenging neoliberal capitalism and resisting the ways philanthro-capitalism is shaping our world and our movements. It is also about recognizing how colonization and patriarchy, past and present, are foundational to the inequalities and injustices we are experiencing, in relation to Covid-19 in particular and our health rights and bodily autonomy in general. Vaccine justice is very much a feminist issue and one that feminists have been grappling with over the years. Particularly in our advocacy for health rights, with regards to the comprehensive universal health coverage agenda of access to essential medicines, treatment, care and support.
Vaccines are a cornerstone of public health but also very much an industry. They come with a number of challenges around accessibility, affordability, acceptability and inequity. The absurd realities produced by these challenges are not new to us. For example, the global distribution of the HPV vaccine is so inequitable between countries that the WHO had to recommend to wealthy countries to temporarily stop expanding their HPV vaccination campaigns to cover boys so that poorer nations can focus on at least covering young girls.
We’ve already discussed the nature of public private partnerships (PPP’s) that are most often designed to advantage profit over rights, resulting in inequitable distribution and access. Resulting in what feminist economist Jayati Ghosh called “an artificial shortage of vaccines globally due to intellectual property restrictions”.
Feminist engagement with vaccine injustice is closely linked to feminist critique of intellectual property. Market-based rights and the commodification of knowledge are historically antithetical to feminist values. Feminist ways of knowing, indigenous ways of knowing, queer ways of knowing. These don’t consider knowledge to be property. The role of women and other marginalized groups of people in making and sharing knowledge and in inventing and innovation have been invisibilized and excluded by patriarchy and capitalism. A regime like TRIPS reinforces this status quo while creating new inequalities. Thus the call from some quarters for not just a TRIPS waiver but an end to TRIPS.
As feminists join the People’s Vaccine Campaign and engage with the ongoing discussions and advocacy around the TRIPS waiver, we should also raise questions whether the states that espouse feminist foreign policy actually walk the talk. The continued resistance of the EU to a TRIPS waiver for example, with so many champions of gender equality and feminist foreign policy in its membership, should indicate to us that their feminism is performative and in the service of neoliberal capitalism. But it also creates an opportunity for us to demand accountability for them and drive home the fact that access to medicines, including life saving vaccines, cannot be delinked from their allyship to gender equality.
Clearly it is urgent and essential that feminist movements build a strong analysis on macroeconomics and trade in our advocacy. Especially with those embedded in economic justice movements calling to resist neoliberal capitalism through critical work on intellectual property rights, corporate accountability, technology and technology transfer, tax justice, and financing for development.
This is already happening. This discussion today is one such example as are some of the interventions by DAWN, APWLD, the Gender and Trade Coalition, and others. But our collective goal of vaccine justice is an opportunity for more of us to reach out across movements, especially at national and local levels. How can we go about this?
If we try to visualize movements, there are various nodes playing different roles whether it is thinking, learning together, co-creating knowledge, communicating, grassroots organizing, policy advocacy, protesting, fundraising, care work, etc. Each of us are nodes doing one or more of these things which is how movement building happens. When nodes from various movements, communities, countries and regions make connections, cross-movement and cross-regional organizing can happen.
At RESURJ, the transnational feminist alliance I’m representing here, our organizing and movement building happens on the basis of building trust, nurturing solidarity, and sharing power. And I think these can be useful as we organize on the issue of vaccine justice.
Building trust means recognizing that we are not talking about overnight transformations. Organizing and working with other movements requires educating each other, finding common ground, and patient and persistent communication of our politics.
Nurturing solidarity means going beyond performative allyship. Part of that is engaging in campaigns like the People’s Vaccine while not losing the substance of the broader and structural issues we are collectively trying to tackle. In other words, we have to maintain and nurture our solidarities beyond vaccine justice.
The other part of nurturing solidarity is accountability among movements. We know and have learnt how Bill Gates and other philanthro-capitalists use their influence to shape the world according to their ideologies, for example in the food sovereignty movement. So when we come together across our movements, part of our accountability is understanding and critiquing how gender equality and SRHR agendas are also resourced by philanthro-capitalism, possibly shaping and dictating our priorities. Of course this is not easy to do. Shrinking space for activism and backtracking by so many governments on their commitments create an environment in which we have little choice in how we resource our work. However, Covid-19 and vaccine justice could be a moment of reckoning. It is also an opportunity for women’s funds to have some of these critical conversations with and about philanthro-capitalism, and to resource cross-regional and cross-movement organizing.
And finally, sharing power. In our movements there is thinking that certain issues are the domain of only some organizations and individuals. Or intimidation of or by technical expertise. We can’t all be feminist economists in order to have a macroeconomics analysis. Nor should we have to be. What we need is to acknowledge power in knowledge hierarchies and dismantle them by co-creating knowledge and analysis that are rooted in our communities and experiences, communicate them in accessible ways, be accountable to each other about who is absent or invisible, and create more spaces and opportunities for co-learning like the one we are in right now. Thank you.
The teach-in can be watched in full on the AWID YouTube channel.