The market race for COVID-19 vaccines is widening the vaccine access gap. Some countries in the global North are buying more vaccines than they need for their entire population, while most countries in the global South are faced with shortages, resulting in slow vaccination programs. As long as vaccination efforts are driven by economic capacity, competition, and property, there will be no right to health or even to life on a global scale.
This is why grassroots movements are calling to break patents and distribute vaccines based on the peoples’ needs, not on the profits of big pharma and other political and economic sectors that are currently congregating in the COVAX initiative. This was the topic of the latest episode of Fúria Feminista, a collaboration between Real World Radio and the World March of Women Brazil. The show, available in Spanish and Portuguese, offers a feminist take on the conversation around the vaccines, as part of the struggle for the right to health and care, and for the sustainability of life.
This episode of Fúria Feminista was dedicated to organizing the criticism against the capitalist dynamics that have cost so many lives. For this purpose, the show spoke with Letícia Paranhos, the coordinator of the Economic Justice and Resisting Neoliberalism program at Friends of the Earth International. It also discussed grassroots alternatives, such as the ones currently being developed in Cuba. “Cuba can show the world the real meaning of solidarity as it puts an extensive integration-driven vaccination program into practice,” the show argues.
You can also listen to the highlights of the interview granted by Marilys Zayas, of the Federation of Cuban Women [Federación de Mujeres Cubanas – FMC] and the World March of Women’s, on Fúria Feminista. As a collaboration with the Real World Radio, Capire transcribed and translated the entire conversation, now available in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and French.
What is the role of women in sustaining life and health in Cuba? And in terms of vaccine development?
When we talk about the role of Cuban women in sustaining life and health, we are not just talking about the pandemic, when we are isolated, separated from one another to contain the spread of a disease that has affected all corners of the world. When we talk about the role of women from Cuba in sustaining life and health, this takes us back to almost time immemorial, because we have to look back at the women who fought for the independence of their island since Spanish colonial times, since the massacre of Cuba’s Indigenous peoples, since the exploitation of enslaved people.
We have to talk about Carlota [Lucumí], an enslaved Black woman who was dismembered for struggling to protect the rights of her children and her family. About Ana Betancourt, who long ago, during the first war for our independence, spoke about women’s right to vote. About Mariana Grajales, who went into la manigua with her entire family and took care of each of her children, healing their wounds, to send them to war for the liberation of her people. I mean, we are talking about women who contributed to care and to the sustainability of life not only in the family realm, but also from a social perspective, based on the importance of social change.
Back to the present, as we take a closer look at Cuban women today, as the heiresses of those we mentioned earlier, we must talk about women who have contributed to life and to building society side by side with men. Women who, from this position, stand up for all their rights. Who empower themselves, who graduated from college, who today make up the majority of researchers in Cuba, of lawyers, of teachers.
It’s also about talking about the women who, in times of COVID-19, take care not only of their families, but also go out to monitor those who are ill, to check how they are, to care for them. Who have dedicated to manufacturing masks and sharing them with their communities. Women who have dedicated so many hours to research centers to find the cure for COVID-19. We are proud to say that women are there, spearheading the research on five vaccines currently being developed in Cuba. I’m talking about, for example, Doctors Belinda Sanchez, of the Center of Molecular Immunology, and Dagmar García Rivera, director and researcher of the Finlay Institute, and many others who are part of this process.
Today, Cuba is conducting tests for five vaccines: Soberana 01, Soberana 02, Abdala, Mambisa, and Soberana Plus. Soberana 02 and Abdala are currently in phase III, which is the trial phase covering virtually massive shots. And some strong candidates are being developed, like Soberana 01, which may be administered to underaged people, and Mambisa, which is a nasal option that may prevent some side effects of injectable vaccines. Other good news is that Soberana Plus could work as a second booster, which means it could boost other vaccines’ efficacy. The science sector is saying that we could first have Soberana 02 or Abdala shots (which are being administered now), and later administer Soberana Plus jabs. This would boost other vaccines and help protect patients from major virus mutations.
What can other countries learn about the right to health from this vaccine development process?
One of the fundamental pillars of the Cuban Revolution is the right to health. This has been achieved and continuously defended since 1959, the year of the revolution, because it was a demand from our people before the revolution. This is exactly why, over the past 60 years, despite all this unfair and criminal blockade by the United States against Cuba, conditions have been created so that our country is able to develop vaccines. We have a long history of vaccine development. Of all vaccines available for children today, which is about eleven, we produce eight. We have the know-how, because Cuba has created the conditions for this. It has created research centers and has continuously modernized its infrastructure. And let us not forget that all this was Fidel [Castro]’s idea. When we visit these centers and talk to their cofounders, they never fail to mention the first true thing about this: “thanks to Fidel,” “Fidel created this,” “Fidel thought about this,” “it was Fidel’s idea.”
This experience shows that, to provide fair healthcare for an entire people, the first thing we need to democratize is their research institutions. What we are doing today is the result of all this effort. Despite the blockade and interference, it allows us to rely on these labs and to have trained human capital. This is the fundamental example that Cuba can offer to countries around the world: health is not a business; health is a necessity, a human right.
This is exactly why countries must create policies to make sure there is free access to public healthcare for everyone, as well as policies to contribute with healthcare and science development in their countries. I believe that a mindset of justice and humanity is what is lacking in the world. To think about the peoples, to think about the people.
What does Cuba have to say about solidarity, inequality of access, and patents?
The names of the vaccines say a lot about what Cuba thinks about solidarity between countries, about the access to patents. The fact that our first two vaccines are called Soberana 01 and 02 is enough to explain that one thing we strive for is sovereignty – not just for a country, but sovereignty for a better world. Also, it is a process that, in itself, encompasses inclusion, respect, care. Of course, Cuba needs to strengthen its economy, but it will never refuse to vaccinate the peoples who need it the most and who don’t have the means to ensure their own immunization.
Back to the names: Mambisa was the name of the guerrilla fighters during the War of Independence. Women fighters who fought in la manigua against the Spanish, against the colonizers. We are still talking about sovereignty, freedom, independence, which is what Cuba proclaims for all the peoples of the world. The name Abdala comes from a poem by Martí. A poem he wrote when he was young, for his mother. It’s the story of a hero who leaves his mother’s home and dies to save this homeland. Here is a commitment, an intense commitment, from Cuban science: to support and care for the peoples, in terms of costs, needs, and the economic benefits that Cuban vaccines can generate.
 La manigua isthe woods and most thick countryside of Cuba, where Cubans organized a government during the War of 1868, and which became a battleground for independence from colonial Spanish forces throughout the 19th Century.