Two years since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic and the world has changed beyond recognition. People had to adjust to a new reality and were faced with unprecedented challenges overnight.

At first, there was confusion and fear of the unknown. Governments were caught unprepared and most were slow to respond. Once the seriousness of the problem was understood, strict lockdowns came into place as scientists worked round the clock to find treatments and cures for the virus.

The world was brought to a standstill. Talk of a new normal was everywhere. A global mobilisation was needed to fight the pandemic. In Europe, the pandemic brought to the fore the massive inequalities in society from years of neoliberal policies and widened the democratic gap between citizens and government.

People lost lives, loved ones and livelihoods. There have been 6 million recorded Covid-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic but experts estimate the actual figure to be more than double. Only 6.95% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 73% in high-income nations.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we reflect on the key struggles that have taken centre stage during the pandemic and that may define our generation.

Protecting our public services & standing up for a Social Europe 

Between 2011 and 2018, the European Commission has asked various member states 63 times to cut health spending under the so-called Stability and Growth Pact. Under pressure, governments implemented waves of privatisation of vital health services. This policy has left our healthcare systems underfunded, under-resourced, and vulnerable to private interests.

When the pandemic hit, hospitals struggled to cope with the massive influx of patients. Doctors and nurses were stretched thin, many were forced to make life and death decisions, and risked their own lives due to a shortage of adequate personal protective equipment.

For what felt like a split second, frontline or essential workers finally received some recognition. Nurses, carers, supermarket employees, rubbish collectors, truck drivers, platform workers, among others, keep our societies running but are the least recognised, often on the margins of society, living from paycheck to paycheck, working in precarious and dangerous conditions.

The pandemic made imperative the need for a genuine social Europe. Left MEPs have fought hard to reverse the current course, succeeding in suspending austerity rules and directing crucial resources, through the Recover and Resilience Facility, to where it’s most needed: the strengthening of our public systems and social nets, particularly health, support for workers and their rights, and social and environmental justice.

Defending democracy and holding the EU accountable

The EU Ombudsman’s rebuke against Commission President von der Leyen for her failure to disclose text messages with the Pfizer CEO is the latest example of the opacity of EU institutions and lack of accountability of public officials.

Throughout the pandemic, the Commission negotiated billion euro contracts with Big Pharma for the supply of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Left MEPs pressured the Commission to release the terms of the contracts. However, when they were finally made public, most of the information was redacted. The Commission continues to hide details of the negotiations and agreements with Big Pharma with impunity.

The Commission has invested half a billion euros in a year in Covid-19 research. Meanwhile, Covid-19 vaccine suppliers, Pfizer, BionNTech and Moderna, the main beneficiaries of this publicly funded research, have raked in record profits from the sale of vaccines.

The pandemic revealed the extent of corporate capture of EU institutions and the lack of democratic accountability, with Big Pharma dictating EU health policies. The Left has fought to bring power back to the people by holding the Commission accountable and keeping it at the top of the agenda.

A Europe of solidarity 

At the start of the pandemic, Commission President von der Leyen promised that a Covid-19 vaccine would be a “truly unique, global public good.” However, this promise was forgotten almost as soon as it was uttered.

Even before a Covid-19 vaccine had been found, the EU had signed supply agreements with Big Pharma, monopolising global supply. To this day, the EU has continued to hoard vaccines while preventing access for poor countries. According to the Vaccine Alliance, the EU likely threw away 55 million doses of Covid vaccines by the end of February 2022, 25 million more vaccine doses than it had donated to Africa this year.

Given the failure of COVAX, the international mechanism for equitable vaccine distribution, India and South Africa presented a proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a TRIPS Waiver, the lifting of vaccine patents so that the world can be vaccinated and lives saved. No one is safe until everyone is safe, especially if this means preventing the emergence of new, potentially more dangerous variants that would see the pandemic prolonged.

The EU has taken the side of Big Pharma in the international arena, refusing to lift vaccine patents and ignoring calls by the European Parliament. The upcoming WTO Ministerial Council, scheduled for June 2022, could see a breakthrough. But only if the EU is willing to break its isolation. The pandemic has shown that international solidarity is now needed more than ever.

Saving the planet

With the world’s attention turned to the pandemic, climate chaos did not ease or stop. The climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic, a zoonotic disease, are interwoven and both are the result of human activity.

The risk of zoonotic diseases has become more likely with the expansion of urban areas into the habitat of wild animals, rapid deforestation, intensive agriculture and the international trade in exotic animals. Both global warming and zoonotic diseases are preventable and could be mitigated.

The EU’s Recovery Plan could have been an opportunity to accelerate the green transition. However, right-wing forces are trying hard to weaken ambitious climate goals, and more recently, instrumentalising Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine to shift priorities towards more investment in fossil fuel gas and the building of a military and defence union.

Without radical and effective action on the climate, pandemics will become more common.

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