Nurses' Unions of 28 Nations Complain to UN Against Rich Countries' TRIPS Waiver Reluctance

The human cost of their sustained opposition to the temporary suspension of the intellectual property rights arrangement amounts to rights violations on a global scale, unions representing 2.5 billion health workers have said.

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New Delhi: Unions representing 2.5 million health workers from 28 countries have filed a complaint with the United Nations alleging human rights violations by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland and Singapore – over their refusal to temporarily waiver intellectual property rights to ensure faster access to vaccines during the pandemic.

The coalition of nurses’ unions have claimed that the EU and the four countries are responsible for the loss of “countless lives” during the pandemic, due to their “continued opposition” to a waiver of the rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement)”.

The complaint comes on the eve of the vital WTO ministerial conference in Geneva starting on November 30, which has now been postponed due to the deteriorating health situation presented by the Omicron variant.

India, along with South Africa, had proposed the waiver at the World Trade Organization last year, as a way to speed up the manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to low- and moderate-income countries.

Shyamal Misra, a senior official at the Union Ministry of Commerce, had told Reuters before the Geneva meet was postponed that India would not just be speaking for itself at the but for other developing countries with which it is working closely.

Also read: Covax Has Received Only 13% of Doses It Needs, While Countries Turn to Boosters

More than 45% of the world’s population has still not received even one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a press release by the Global Nurses United (GNU) and the Progressive International (PI), which coordinated the effort, has said.

Global Nurses United represents more than 30 leading nurses and healthcare workers unions on every continent. The Progressive International includes social movements, political parties, and trade unions that represent millions of people around the world.

“COVID-19 cases continue to soar in numerous parts of the world, while pharmaceutical companies and governments have failed to ensure that critical treatments and vaccines are distributed equitably in order to respond to the pandemic,” the nurses’ unions wrote in the complaint addressed to Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health.

The complaint calls on Mofokeng to lead an investigation into the “immediate threat to people’s right to health caused by failure by the certain states and institutions.” It draws on human rights obligations that WTO member states are legally bound to, including the recent expert opinion by the International Commission of Jurists stating that “it is incumbent on all states to desist from blocking the TRIPS waiver,” PI has written in the release.

“High-income countries have procured upwards of 7 billion confirmed vaccine doses, while low-income countries have only been able to procure approximately 300 million doses. This has created what public health advocates around the world have described as ‘vaccine apartheid.’”

“Nurses and other health care workers have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response, and we have witnessed the staggering numbers of deaths and the immense suffering caused by political inaction,” the petition noted.

Mofokeng, in her response, welcomed the position presented by nurses and activists.

The nurses’ core demand is one I share: States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing [the] temporary waiver…” she said, noting that nurses and healthcare workers have been on the front line of keeping people safe and “have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Jibin T.C., president of India’s largest trade union of nurses, the United Nurses Association, with over 500,000 members, is quoted in the press release as noting the two frontiers that health workers operate on.

“We have always been fighting two battles: Against the virus in the emergency wards, and against corporate interests in the halls of power,” said Jibin.

The nurses’ coalition is not the only one to have forwarded such a demand. More than 130 civil society groups largely from developing countries had called on the WTO to concentrate on approving the intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines.

The groups, organised under a loose coalition called “Our World is Not For Sale,” said in a letter on Wednesday to WTO members that “vaccine apartheid” caused by WTO intellectual property rules must be resolved first.

Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Public Citizen and 11 others had additionally urged US President Joe Biden to personally push countries for a vaccine waiver under the TRIPS agreement.