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Time for Labour to commit to progressive internationalism

The fight against the Covid pandemic will only succeed if it's driven by global internationalist solidarity, writes DIANE ABBOTT

TWO very important developments in the struggle against the pandemic took place this week. They illustrate the seriousness of the spread of the virus on a global scale, which unfortunately often gets rather overlooked in this country. But they also indicate something about the Labour Party’s approach to international affairs, and what the adoption of a progressive internationalist outlook could mean in practice.

The two key developments themselves are first the approach of another high point for recorded new cases of the coronavirus, which is extremely worrying.

The second is the call of former leading politicians for the suspension of Covid-19 vaccine patents. 

Currently, most countries in the world have very limited or no access to vaccines and are in extreme danger as a result. The suspension of patents, and funds from the richest countries to pay for generic vaccines, would be an important contribution to addressing that extreme risk.

According to the scientists at John Hopkins University in the US new case levels peaked at around 740,000 per day in early January, before falling rapidly under the impact of lockdowns.

However, a new more rapid resurgence in cases has seen them rise to almost the same level this week. There is a clear risk we will see a new peak on cases sometime soon.

In this country, because the government is now relying almost exclusively on the vaccine programme, there is a widespread view that they are a magic bullet. They are not. This is easily shown by the course of the virus among the countries where vaccinations are most advanced.

Israel is out on its own, having applied more jabs than the numbers in the population, as the second dose programme is well under way.  The case level in Israel has fallen dramatically. 

But there is another group of countries, Bahrain, Chile, the US and this country which represent the next highest total where between 50 and 60 per cent of the population has been given at least one jab.  

Crucially, if vaccines were a magic bullet then the level of cases per capita in these countries would be falling by around the same rate.  However, in 3 out 4 of those countries, cases are not falling at all.  The only country in this group where new cases are actually falling is the UK.

Vaccines are brilliant in preventing serious illness and death, and I have urged everyone to get one if they can.  But it is the strict lockdown that was responsible for the fall in cases here.

It is uncertain whether the reopening is risking another surge without a more comprehensive roll-out of the vaccine programme.

The truth remains that all those countries that have effectively eliminated the virus, Australia, China, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam and others have done so without the use of a vaccine at all. 

Theirs was a “maximum suppression” or zero-Covid policy. This is what is still required here and elsewhere.  

The pandemic also remains global. No country is safe until all are safe. The strain of the virus now devastating Western Europe was first identified in this country – the “Kent strain.” 

The variants first identified in India, Brazil and South Africa are the ones that are now causing the most concern to scientists here, especially as they may converge and develop a certain vaccine resistance.

In any country without a stringent travel ban, no strict quarantine measures for travellers and no proper support for all those asked to self-isolate, the risk of mutations will only grow.  So, the clamour of the Tory-supporting media for full reopening now is completely reckless.

In a global pandemic there is an overriding necessity for public-sector intervention combined with global co-operation. We have already seen this in all areas where there have been successes in combatting the virus, from co-operation with and through the WHO, to the development of vaccines and their manufacturing.

Yet this is very far from true in terms of global co-operation on the distribution of vaccines. Most of the world’s poor have no access to them at all.

Earlier this month, the WHO reported that just 38 million doses of vaccine had been distributed through the international Covax programme. This is around just one jab for every 200 people in the world.

Therefore, it was heartening to see earlier this week a report that 70 former leading politicians, including Gordon Brown, Francois Hollande and many others have written to US President Joe Biden asking that intellectual property rights to the vaccine be waived for the duration of the pandemic.

Previously, the UK and US were among the group of richest countries who voted down this proposal at the World Trade Organisation. These are the same group of countries that also stand accused of vaccine hoarding. This initiative and letter should be fully supported by genuine internationalists.

Attempting to provide vaccines to the majority of the world’s poorer countries is a genuinely progressive internationalism. The Labour Party leadership should get behind this call.

Over a prolonged period there has been too much talk of internationalism which is self-serving and ultimately promotes aims which are not in the slightest bit progressive. 

We had a sharp reminder of that this week with the announcement this US administration would finally be pulling out of Afghanistan. Of course, British troops will automatically do the same, without any debate or any attempt to learn lessons from the whole debacle.

I can recall being lectured by politicians who never expressed any interest in feminist issues before or since, that it was necessary to bomb and invade Afghanistan so that girls could go to school. 

Women cannot be liberated by bombing them, and most Afghan girls still do not go to school, according to Human Rights Watch.

This is fake internationalism, and it should be rejected. Labour values should include a genuinely progressive internationalism, and a rejection of Tory sabre-rattling, rearmament and nuclear threats. 

We can begin in practice by providing vaccines to the world’s poorest.

Diane  Abbott is a Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.

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