Lives at risk if WTO puts "business as usual" ahead of public health response

PSI has joined hundreds of Unions and Civil Society Allies from across the world, calling on the World Trade Organisation to halt trade negotiations during the Covid-19 Pandemic and instead prioritze policies which reinforce public health systems.

In an influential Open Letter submitted to the WTO's virtual meeting on April 17th, the signatories, including PSI, outlined how: “The first and only priority for trade negotiators at this time should be to remove all obstacles, including intellectual property rules, in existing agreements that hinder timely and affordable access to medical supplies, such as lifesaving medicines, devices, diagnostics and vaccines, and the ability of governments to take whatever steps are necessary to address this crisis."

At the meeting, the WTO delayed a decision to continue negotiations to consult with member states over the next week.

PSI is calling on affiliates to write to their governments by the April 29th asking them to suspend the negotiations.

Use our template letter to send to your Ministry in support of these calls - click here!

Unions can also sign on to the Open Letter to the WTO here.

Daniel Bertossa Assistant General Secretary, PSI

"If trade talks continue at the height of a pandemic, it will reinforce the view that many hold, that the WTO puts profits over people."

The World Trade Organization’s existing intellectual property rules could prevent the ability of many states to secure affordable access to medical supplies, especially vaccines and potential medicines to treat COVID-19 that are currently being developed.

Many countries have supported the call for a pause, outlining how continuing negotiations would undermine their governments' sharp focus on responding to the health emergency. Despite these concerns, many wealthier countries (including the European Union) pushed for long-term negotiations to continue, across a range of sectors irrelevant to the public health response.

Around 30 developing countries, including South Africa, Jamaica (on behalf of the Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific Group) and India rejected the WTO's proposal to continue negotiations virtually.

Indian Ambassador JS Deepak said: “We do not think that it is feasible to conduct negotiations or adopt decisions on substantive negotiating issues through virtual meetings or written procedures.”

Rosa Pavanelli PSI General Secretary

"If the WTO wants to prove it is a truly inclusive and consensuses-based organisation, it must halt all negotiations until all key stakeholders, including unions, have the capacity to re-engage and in the mean time promote policies which bolster our public health systems."

Among the key concerns expressed were:

  • lockdowns and social distancing make it impossible to effectively consult key stakeholders such as unions and civil society.

  • governments need to prioritize battling the current crisis: continuing negotiations would reduce capacities and constrain the ability of many states to negotiate.

  • The widespread repercussions of the outbreak, including economic hardship, threat to food and livelihood security and unpredictable trade disruptions mean states would have to continually re-assess their negotiating positions across different areas of the WTO’s work. Therefore, to carry on with negotiations in a business as usual format does not make sense.

  • In a consensus-based organization such as the WTO, it is of fundamental importance that negotiations are transparent and inclusive, yet not all Members are equally equipped for this because of the digital divide and resource constraints.

The Union-CSO letter instead called on WTO Members to ensure that all countries have the flexibilities to set aside trade rules that constrain their ability to resolve the pandemic crisis, without fear of repercussions, and to cease other negotiations and activities that divert their energy and resources from that goal.

Dr George Laking, a medical oncologist speaking on behalf of Doctors for Healthy Trade said:

“Working in cancer, every day I see the suffering and concern caused by unrestricted pharmaceutical pricing. Now there is the chance this will be repeated across the whole of society, as corporations seek to profit from tests and treatments for COVID-19.”

PSI is calling for affiliated unions to contact their ministries, in support of halting WTO negotiations and promoting pro-public health trade policy.

Download our
template letter and template press release.

Unions can also sign on to the Open Letter to the WTO here.)

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