India's treatment by western countries during the pandemic mirrors the country's experience during the Bengal Famine of over 70 years ago
The story of Covid’s impact on India is not entirely new. Within living memory, the country experienced a very similar tragedy: a disintegrating healthcare system, overloaded crematoriums and uncontrollable and incalculable death rates.
The Bengal Famine of 1943 took place in Bengal, British India - an area that is now eastern India and Bangladesh. Through starvation and disease it cost the lives of around three million people. Covid’s official India’s official Covid death toll is in the hundreds of thousands, but some estimates consider it to be millions. Scale alone is not where the similarities end. The parallels between now and then reveal familiar colonial power dynamics at work a full 72 years after independence.
Don’t blame it on the sunshine
Over the years, historians have increasingly put the famine down to poor weather provoking crop failure. However, in doing so they ignore the social and material conditions of colonial rule. There are a huge number of these that escalated the crisis: wartime inflation and speculative hoarding both driving up prices; the appropriation of land from peasants; rickety and opaque provincial administrations; a lack of democracy and food scarcity - both in part due to policies of the British War Cabinet. Apportioning exact values of blame to each of these factors is, thankfully, beyond the scope of this discussion. But what is possible - and important - to say is that the British War Cabinet had a significant role to play in failing to halt the spread of the famine.
Panic! In the cabinet
In the early 1940s, the War Cabinet looked around Europe and feared the scarcity of essential foodstuffs. British civilians were living on rations. German U-boats marauded the Channel sinking merchant ships and frontline food shortages would spell disaster in occupied Europe. Five thousand miles away, parts of India were being mobilised to support the British war effort - not merely for purposes of manufacturing or military recruitment, but for the export of food.
Signs of famine began to creep up. Fearing food shortages across Europe, the War Cabinet permitted scarcity in Bengal. They regularly rejected calls from high-ranking British officials in India calling for food imports from as early as December 1942. They continued to block imports, even via India’s own financial reserves, as Australian wheat sailed past the subcontinent and onwards on its journey to Europe. In mid-1943, urgent requests by Leo Amery, the India Secretary, for a million tonnes of wheat to address the rapid spread of famine were routinely ignored, while the colony was compelled to continue exporting Bengali rice to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) to stockpile resources for the British army stationed there. The famine yielded in late 1943 in large part due to the influx of resources from other provinces and the War Cabinet eventually heeding the concerns of British officials and allowing international imports. Undoubtedly, swifter action would have saved many lives.
The negligence of the War Cabinet is a candid demonstration of the British imperial ideology. It was predicated on imperialism as a ‘civilising mission’ and strongly believed in a racial hierarchy. It can be summed up in Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s comment that aid would accomplish nothing because Indians “bred like rabbits”.
A different kind of shortage
In spring 2021 Covid devastated India. New recorded cases peaked at over 400,000 per day. But the true scale of the crisis stretches far beyond those figures. As in Bengal, this crisis took place during a time of resource scarcity. The life-or-death resource in this instance was not food, but vaccines.
A bizarre situation unfurled: India became one of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturers and exporters yet its own vaccination programme was in its infancy. Unpacking this apparent contradiction illustrates the abstract logic of a global economic system in which colonial power dynamics still whir. The result: conditions of resource scarcity akin to those of the darkest days of the British Empire.
The problem: patenting
Central to the scarcity of vaccines in India, and other countries in the Global South, is patent law. Vaccine patents are an example of intellectual property (IP) rights. The IP rights conferred onto a vaccine ‘recipe’ under the 1995 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) prohibits use of that patented invention by a third party for at least 20 years. Essentially, only manufacturers licensed by the pharmaceutical company can produce their vaccine.
The Indian Serum Institute, based in the Indian city of Pune, is one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world and one of the few in the Global South that has been licensed to produce the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. Yet it was granted this license in part to support Western countries fulfil its commitments to the COVAX scheme, a charitable distribution of vaccines by high-income countries to countries predominantly in the Global South. As a result, India was trapped in a bind whereby it was manufacturing and exporting millions of vaccines, while overseeing a fledgling vaccination programme of its own.
Prior to this, in October 2020 Indian leaders tabled a proposition to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive IP rights around Covid vaccines. This would have enabled other countries to take up the mantle of Covax vaccine production, kick-starting vaccination programmes in the Global South.
Instead, high-income WTO members continue to block the waiver, as multinational pharmaceutical companies’ retain monopolies over the production and pricing of their vaccines. This means that low-income countries struggle to afford the numbers of vaccines they need, while wealthy countries can accrue them in excess. And it means large pharmaceutical manufacturing plants in India, Brazil, Senegal and elsewhere that could be rapidly converted into Covid vaccine production sites instead remain idle.
It didn’t need to be like this
In short, vaccine scarcity is artificial; it’s by design. It is not a reflection of manufacturing capacity but of a commodified global pharmaceutical industry motivated by profit and market need. That’s why in April 2021, 80% of the world’s vaccines had gone to people in wealthy countries and only 0.3% to people in low-income countries. Sixth months later, most people in the UK are sitting comfortably on two jabs, while countries in the Global South are not expecting to fully vaccinate their populations until 2023.
A waiver would have saved lives in India and beyond. But it would do little to unpick the neoliberal logic weaved into the global economic order, which sanctifies artificial scarcity as a tool for the generation of profit. Economic geographer Brett Christophers describes in Rentier Capitalism how the rise of neoliberalism has restructured the economy around ‘rent’, defined as ‘income derived from the ownership, possession or control of scarce assets and under conditions of limited or no competition’. In much the same way that a landlord collects rent on their assets (their properties), IP laws enable pharmaceutical companies to collect rent on their assets (their patents).
In essence, rentierism defends and enhances the interests of those with pre-existing wealth – multinationals based in high-income countries, and those countries themselves – ensuring global inequality continues down the path laid by colonialism. This is illustrated in the way global IP rights came into existence. Christophers demonstrates how a fierce US-EU lobby, fuelled in part by the UK’s corporate interests, ensured TRIPS was passed in 1995. TRIPS was subsequently imposed on low-income countries as a condition of WTO membership – countries who have far less use for IP protections – making Western countries’ patents enforceable overseas. The UK ‘attachés’ stationed in China, India, Brazil and South East Asia in the 2010s to enforce British IP rights are an even starker demonstration of neo-colonialism in action, as many Western countries continue to exploit all kinds of IP rights for considerable profit.
To deflect from having to confront ongoing structural violence, high-income countries default to charity; in the case of vaccine inequity, the Covax vaccine sharing initiative. Couching medicinal access as a question of charity rejects the perspective that the system is fundamentally flawed, instead painting Western nations as ‘victors’ of that system and the recipients of aid as backward. As well as echoing the civilizational narratives of the early colonisers, it shields us from the reality that there is a broken system, or at least portrays the world’s systems as unchangeable and all we can do is give a helping hand to the ‘losers’.
Changing the world (order)
The importance of charity to vaccine access signals the perilous position low-income states are left in: dependence on rich countries. Despite living in a time of abundance, scarcity is etched into the global economic order, presenting an opportunity for profit for multinationals and a looming threat to low-income countries. That threat became a tragic reality earlier this year, and will continue to linger on the horizon as long as these power dynamics remain in place.
The pandemic, like the Second World War, has shone a light on the injustices built into the prevailing system. Unlike violent exploitation, neo-colonialism is often abstract, elusive and shapeshifting; but we should not shy away from challenging the structural violence that serves to perpetuate colonial power dynamics, and the racialised hierarchies that underpin them. We should use these moments of clarity to collectively call for a more just global system that tackles, rather than reinforces, the status quo.