By Nicolaas van Wyk and Ciaran Ryan
It was announced in Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2021/22 Budget that R8.2 billion has been set aside for the vaccine roll-out over the next two years. Another R8 billion is set aside for managing the “second and third waves” of Covid in the 2021/22 fiscal year. Another R2.1 billion is set aside for the extension of special Covid-19 social relief and distress grants.
As we previously wrote in Accounting Weekly, there are a lot of unanswered questions about this vaccine roll-out. We also suggested at the time that vaccines should be made available to the world on an open-source basis at no cost.
As accountants, we are all for profit. It is the fuel that powers all human enterprise. But in this case we say “No”.
It seems unconscionable that pharmaceutical companies are using this pandemic as an opportunity for profit. The PR Spin is that these vaccines are being made available at very low cost to developing countries, but that is a bit hard to believe. If these pharmaceutical companies want to be taken seriously on this, then make the vaccine patents available to the world. Let other countries produce the vaccines themselves at the lowest possible cost, and let Big Pharma wallow in the glory of having rescued the world from an existential health threat.
If this is the greatest health crisis in history – which it isn’t – then SA should lobby aggressively for access to these patents on an open source basis. If we remain silent, it is reasonable to assume we will end up paying far more than the R30 billion set aside for this crisis. If we are to measure the true cost of this crisis, then let’s not confine it only to the cost of the vaccine and its roll-out. The gash to the social and economic artery of this country runs far deeper than this. Millions of workers have lost their jobs or suffered a drop in income.
As we previously reported, South Africa may be a lonely voice calling for “free” vaccines (that is, free of profits), but someone must start pressuring these pharmaceutical companies to live up to their corporate governance standards.
It is worth reminding readers what we wrote in January (and this is more relevant today than ever).
Here is a statement from Pfizer itself on its approach to corporate governance: “It is essential that we practice responsible business principles, and continue to demonstrate our commitment to excellence to sustain value for our investors and stakeholders.”
Practicing responsible and “sustainable” business would surely mean saving as many lives as possible?
How better to do this than to forsake profit on Covid-19 vaccines and make your patents available to the world?
If the new mantra of sustainable business practices is to have any meaning, then it is time to put pressure on companies that could save lives through the release of intellectual property to do so, and not to seek to make a profit from what has become an existential crisis to the entire planet – particularly at risk groups such as the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions and the malnourished. The poor in SA and elsewhere do not have the luxury of private or even public healthcare worth the name. It would be a massive show of goodwill to provide those most in need with the medicine they need to overcome this virus.
If an issue such as Covid-19 is seen as an opportunity for profit by the pharmaceutical giants, then everything we have spent years studying the King Codes on Corporate Governance and sustainable business practices amount to nothing. We have been wasting our time on empty slogans. It starts to look as if “sustainable development” is nothing more than a cosy arrangement between big business and government to raise the costs of doing business for everyone else.
As accountants, we are not disinterested in this issue. We have a vital interest is seeing the country safe, healthy and back to work. Our clients are demanding nothing less.
We also have an interest in ensuring that the money allocated to health care and equipment is well spent. When we see the kind of corruption that possessed the initial stages of tendering for personal protective equipment (PPE) last year, we recognise yet another failure of governance. It is left to the taxpayers – ourselves and our clients – to pay for this corruption.
The reality is that virtually all businesses in the country are having to reinvent themselves to survive. They are having to find new sources of revenue and cut costs – sometimes in brutal ways that include laying off staff. They are having to become more efficient at what they do, and having a freely available vaccine so that the country can safely return to work is of vital interest to the economy.
There is another ominous development that needs mentioning: when there is so much evidence of effective alternative treatments and drugs for Covid-19, why are these being shut out of the debate and labelled “dangerous” and “irresponsible”. There needs to be a free and open debate about effective protocols for treating this most deadly of diseases. Many of us have had close family members succumb to this disease, and we are left wondering if the outcome could have been different if there was more choice in the type of treatments available.
To shut down honest, rigorous and scientific debate on this most crucial of issues begins to look like medical monopoly rather than effective treatment. Which brings us back to the profit motive.
As accountants, we are all for profit. But in this case, we say “No”. There’s too much at stake. It’s time for SA to take the lead internationally and demand that these patents be made freely available to the world.