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OPINION: Acts of piracy and the virus threat

Peter Ewart
Peter Ewart

BY PETER EWART

Special to the News

Like other countries, Canada is facing an acute shortage of respiratory masks in the struggle to protect health care workers and the population at large from the COVID-19 virus.  Supplies are dwindling fast with a province like Ontario reportedly having only a five-day supply left and health care workers forced to disinfect and reuse their masks.  Without protection of masks, these workers are being put in an impossible, life and death situation.

In an act that is severely aggravating this shortage, the Trump administration has used the recently invoked US Defense Production Act to force the 3M multinational to cut off shipments of masks to Canada and divert them to the US.  In addition, according to news reports, a shipment of masks to Quebec mysteriously disappeared and ended up in the US state of Ohio.

Similar “law of the jungle” actions by the US administration are being carried out against other countries internationally.  For example, German officials have just revealed that a shipment of 200,000 masks from China to Germany for the Berlin police was intercepted by US officials in Thailand and diverted to the US.  The Berlin Minister of Interior has called this confiscation “an act of international piracy.”  French political leaders have also accused Washington of buying up shipments intended for France. 

A few weeks ago, reports came out that President Trump was trying to buyout and relocate to the US a German-based medical company, CureVac, which was developing a promising vaccine against the virus.  The US administration was trying hard to obtain the company in order to have the vaccine “for the US only,”  which raises the question as to whether the Trump administration was then going to use its exclusive ownership over the vaccine for blackmail purposes against other countries.  In any case, CureVac rejected the takeover attempt saying that it would only develop the vaccine “for the whole world” and “not for individual countries.”

These developments underline the fact that the current model of neo-liberal globalization is irrevocably broken.  Under this model, which favours and enriches giant multinational corporations, the populations of all countries (including the US) are extremely vulnerable to supply chain disruption, shortages and outright blackmail.  Despite this, successive governments in Canada have clung to the dogmas of neo-liberal globalization and integrated the Canadian economy into that of the US, selling out our resources and supply chains to the highest multinational corporate bidder. 

This has created gaping holes in our national health and medical equipment infrastructure.  It is unacceptable that almost no respiratory masks are manufactured in Canada despite the need for tens of millions every year, let alone the many millions more needed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.   And the same goes for respiratory machines and other equipment.  Indeed, it is astounding that most of the various pharmaceuticals that Canadians need for their medical conditions are actually produced abroad in China, the US and other countries.

It was in the wake of another terrible virus back in 1918 that a re-evaluation of the Canadian health care system took place.  The 1918 “Spanish flu”, which actually started in the US, killed 50 million people around the world.  In the wake of this pandemic, the federal Canadian Department of Health was created and the public, non-commercial Connaught Laboratories, an independent unit within the University of Toronto, was created.  The Laboratories went on to develop and produce insulin for the treatment of diabetes and other medical advances, making major contributions to the well-being  and health of humanity.

In the face of the COVID-19 virus, we need more facilities like the Connaught Laboratories (which was sadly sold off to a multinational by the federal government in the 1980s) that are consistent with the conditions of our times. 

To their credit, it has just been announced that engineers and students at the University of Guelph’s Wood Centre have taken the initiative to design and build an innovative 3D-printed frame for face shields which is to be distributed to front-line medical personnel dealing with the highly contagious virus.  This is an excellent initiative on the part of a public institution and shows the possibilities that could be built upon.  And there are many other examples that demonstrate the ingenuity and talents of the Canadian people.

In any case, it is not acceptable that Canada has to import most or all of its health and medical supplies from abroad.  Neither is it acceptable that these supply chains and infrastructure remain in the hands of private corporations as this makes them vulnerable to takeover and being shutdown or outsourced to other countries which has happened so often before. 

In addition, there are the tremendous profits which go into the hands of international financiers.  For example, the richest man in Singapore, Li Xiting, who owns a multinational that makes electronic ventilators (a device which Canada must import), has seen his net worth go up $3.4 billion as a result of profits accumulated from this crisis.

In this globalized “law of the jungle” world, which is demonstrated by the predatory actions of the Trump administration, it is clear we need publicly-owned, self-reliant health infrastructure that is impervious to takeovers and outsourcing by any multinational or pressure from foreign governments.

In addition, the “law of the jungle” model of trade and unilateral sanctions championed by the US administration must be rejected.  We need trade based on mutual benefit between nations and a new model of globalization, one that respects sovereignty and empowers peoples.  The American and Canadian people have much in common.  In the midst of these difficult times, we must not let Trump or anyone else divide us.

 (with files from the Guelph Mercury, National Post, AFP, 3M News, CBC News, Bloomberg)

Peter Ewart is a writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at peter.ewart@shaw.ca

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