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November 29, 2021 – A coalition of nurses unions representing well over 2.5 million health care workers from 28 countries around the world, coordinated by Global Nurses United (GNU) and the Progressive International (PI), have filed a complaint with the United Nations alleging human rights violations by the European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic, whose end, they write “is nowhere in sight.”
In their complaint addressed to Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health, the nurses charge that “these countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients — and caused the loss of countless lives” through “continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver … resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world.”
Read the full text of the complaint and cover letter here.
The European Union, the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore have consistently blocked a temporary waiver of corporate pharmaceutical intellectual property rights under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). The South African and Indian governments proposed the waiver at the WTO last year as a way to speed up the manufacture and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to low- and moderate-income countries. More than 45 percent of the world’s population still has not received even one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
“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. “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.’”
Dr. Mofokeng responded, welcoming 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 a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement),” she said. “Nurses and health care workers have been on the front line keeping us safe and have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their evident commitment to the right to physical and mental health provides them with moral authority.”
Signers of the petition include leading nurse/health care unions from Australia (Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation), Brazil (Federação Nacional dos Enfermeiros), Canada (Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec), Costa Rica (Asociación Nacional de Profesionales en Enfermería [A.N.P.E.]), Curacao (Curaçaose Bond Van Werknemers in Verplegende en Verzorgende Instgellingen), Dominican Republic (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Enfermería), Greece (Pan-Hellenic Federation of Nursing Staff (PASONOP), Guatemala (Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de Salud de Guatemala), Honduras (Asociación Nacional de Enfermeras/os Auxiliares de Honduras), India (United Nurses Association), Ireland (Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation), Israel (Israeli Nurses Association), Italy (Nursind), Kenya (Kenya National Union of Nurses), Malawi (National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives of Malawi), New Zealand (New Zealand Nurses Organisation), Paraguay (Asociación Paraguaya de Enfermería), Philippines (Filipino Nurses United), Portugal (Sindicato dos Enfermeiros Portugueses), Rwanda (Rwanda Nurses and Midwives Union), South Africa (The Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa [DENOSA]), South Korea (Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union), Spain (Sindicato de Enfermería [SATSE]), Sri Lanka (Government Nursing Officers’ Association), Taiwan (Taiwan Nurses Union), Uganda (Uganda Nurses and Midwives Union), the United States (National Nurses United), and Uruguay (Sindicato Unico de Enfermería del Uruguay [SUEU]).
PI submitted the full complaint—which 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”—on behalf of the coalition to Dr. Mofokeng on the eve of a Nov. 30 WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva. The complaint calls on Dr. Mofokeng to lead an investigation into the “immediate threat to people’s right to health caused by failure by the certain states and institutions (European Union and its constituent member states, United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore) to support the Covid-19 waiver proposal at the TRIPS council in the World Trade Organization.”
Despite the landmark support of President Biden in May to endorse the waiver, at the urging of National Nurses United and numerous health care and human rights activists, it continues to be blocked by the United Kingdom, the European Union, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore on behalf of the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry.
“This unequal distribution of vaccines is not only grossly unjust for the people in low- and moderate-income countries, who remain at high risk for contracting and further transmitting Covid-19, it also provides for the possibility for the development of new variants… (which) poses a dire risk to all people around the world,” said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN.
“The maldistribution of vaccines in the face of more than 5 million deaths, many of them preventable, is a devastating reminder of the deplorable disparity of wealth between the rich nations of the north and the global south,” Burger continued. “To refuse to act simply to protect the profits of giant pharmaceutical corporations is unconscionable, inhumane, and must be ended.”
“It is way past time for the governments of the world to prioritize the health of the people over the profits of multinational corporations by approving the vaccine waiver,” said Shirley Marshal Díaz Morales, President of the Federação Nacional dos Enfermeiros, representing 632,000 nurses in Brazil. “Nurses around the world have cared for patients throughout this pandemic and have seen unbelievable suffering and death, and so many nurses themselves have gotten ill and paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is disgraceful that almost half the world’s population still does not have access to the Covid-19 vaccine. As long as this situation persists, none of us is safe.”
“These criminal governments have shown their disregard for health and human rights by blocking a proposal that would speed up global vaccine roll out. Their actions have and will continue to cost countless lives and wreck livelihoods. They must be held to account,” said Varsha Gandikota-Nellutla, a member of the PI’s cabinet.
“The peoples of the world can take back their international institutions that have been hijacked by a handful of rich nations. The UN charter, the WTO, WHO, and international law should benefit all of humanity. As a first step, we must expose and then defeat the Covid-19 criminals,” Gandikota-Nellutla continued.
“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. We have directly seen the frightening toll that Covid-19 has had on our patients, our communities, and our fellow health care workers,” the petition noted.
“Hundreds of thousands of nurses and other health care workers around the world have become infected and many have died. Covid-19 has claimed the lives of at least 115,000 healthcare workers around the world so far,” they wrote. “The artificial scarcity of vaccines means that only two in five health and care workers are fully vaccinated on average, but the numbers are catastrophic in many parts of the world—less than one in 10 healthcare workers are fully vaccinated in the African and Western Pacific regions.”
“We believe,” they concluded, “a new international health order is needed to overcome the vaccine inequity which threatens our very survival… to collective benefit, based on the principles of sovereignty, solidarity, and the universal right to life.”
Members of the public can show their support for the nurses’ action by adding their name to it at covid19criminals.exposed.
Global Nurses United represents more than 30 leading nurses and healthcare workers unions on every continent.
The Progressive International launched in May 2020 with a mission to unite, organize, and mobilize progressive forces around the world. The PI is supported by an advisory council that includes Noam Chomsky, Aruna Roy, Vijay Prashad, Andres Arauz, Naomi Klein, Yanis Varoufakis, Fernando Haddad, Gustavo Petro, and many others. Members of the PI include social movements, political parties, and trade unions that represent millions of people around the world.
Legal support was extended by a coalition of human rights lawyers convened by the Global Network of Movement Lawyers at Movement Law Lab, with appreciation for the contributions of the ESCR-Net Secretariat, Gautam Bhatia, and Christian Pino.