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COVID-19: Echoes of the 20th Century in a 21st Century Pandemic

In modern history, the most notable major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. Over a century later, the world is grappling with the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has currently infected over 2 million people and killed over 140,000.

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Diseases have plagued mankind throughout history. The Neolithic Revolution, which was marked by a shift to agrarian societies, preceded by hunting and gathering communities, brought about increased trading activities. The shift created new opportunities for increased human and animal interactions, which in turn, introduced and sped up the spread of new diseases. The more civilized humans became, the more the occurrences of pandemics was witnessed.

This led to outbreaks that left an indelible mark in history due to their severity.  Three of the deadliest pandemics include the Plague of Justinian (541-542 BC) that killed about 30-50 million people, Black Death (1347-1351) that killed 200 million and Smallpox (1520 onwards) that killed 56 million.

Infographic courtesy: Visual Capitalist

In modern history, the most notable major pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919. Over a century later, the world is grappling with the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has currently infected over 2 million people and killed over 140,000.

But how does the Spanish flu compare to the current COVID-19 pandemic?

The mother of all flu pandemics in modern history

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is sometimes referred to as the mother of all pandemics. It affected one-third of the world’s population and killed up to 50 million people, including some 675,000 Americans. It was the first known pandemic to involve the H1N1 virus.

The outbreak occurred during the final months of World War I. It came in several waves but its origin, however, is still a matter of debate to-date. Its name doesn’t necessarily mean it came from Spain.

An emergency hospital during Spanish flu influenza pandemic, Camp Funston, Kansas, c. 1918 Image Courtesy: National Museum of Health and Medicine

Spain was one of the earliest countries where the epidemic was identified. Historians believe this was likely a result of wartime media censorship. The country was a neutral nation during the war and did not enforce strict censorship on its press. This freedom of the press allowed them to freely publish early accounts of the illness. As a result, people falsely believed the illness was specific to Spain and hence earning the name “Spanish flu”.

Symptoms

Influenza or flu is a virus that attacks the respiratory system and is highly contagious.

Initial symptoms of the Spanish flu included a sore head and tiredness, followed by a dry hacking cough, loss of appetite, stomach problems and excessive sweating. As it progressed, the illness could affect the respiratory organs, and pneumonia could develop. This stage was often the main cause of death. This also explains why it is difficult to determine exact numbers killed by the flu, as the listed cause of death was often something other than the flu.

These symptoms are very similar to those of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Origin

For decades, the Spanish flu virus was lost to history and scientists still do not know for sure where the virus originated. Several theories as to what may have caused it point to France, the United States or China.

Research published in 1999 by a British team, led by virologist John Oxford theorized a major United Kingdom staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France as being the centre of the flu. In late 1917, military pathologists reported the onset of a new disease with high mortality in the overcrowded camp that they later recognized as the flu. The camp was also home to a piggery, and poultry was regularly brought for food from neighbouring villages. Oxford and his team theorized that a significant precursor virus harboured in birds, mutated and then migrated to the pigs.

Other statements have been that the flu originated from the United States, in Kansas. In 2018, another study found evidence against the flu originating from Kansas, as the cases and deaths there were fewer than those in New York City in the same period. The study did, however, find evidence suggesting that the virus may have been of North American Origin, though it wasn’t conclusive.

Multiple studies have placed the origin of the flu in China. The country had lower rates of flu mortality, which may have been due to an already acquired immunity possessed by the population.  The argument was that the virus was imported to Europe via infected Chinese and Southeast Asian soldiers and workers headed across the Atlantic.

However, the Chinese Medical Association Journal published a report in 2016 with evidence that the 1918 virus had been circulating in the European armies for months and possibly years before the Spanish flu pandemic.

COVID-19, on the other hand, was first discovered in the Wuhan province of China late last year. There has been no argument against this so far. Research is still ongoing as to whether it was passed on from bats or the newly found connection to pangolins.

Spread

Much like COVID-19, the Spanish flu was spread from through air droplets, when an infected person sneezed or coughed, releasing more than half a million-virus particles that came into contact with uninfected people.

The close quarters and massive troop movements during the war hastened the spread of the flu. There are speculations that the soldiers’ already weakened immune systems were increasingly made vulnerable due to malnourishment and the stresses of combat and chemical attacks. More U.S soldiers in WW1 died from the flu than from the war.

A unique characteristic of the virus was the high death rate it caused among healthy adults 15-34 years of age. It lowered the average life expectancy in the U.S by more than 12 years.

COVID-19, on the other hand, does not discriminate in terms of age, but older people and those with other underlying medical conditions are being considered more vulnerable.

Measures

The measures being taken today to curb the spread of COVID-19 are very similar to those taken in 1918. Back then, physicians advised people to avoid crowded places and shaking hands with other people. Others suggested remedies included eating cinnamon, drinking wine and drinking Oxo’s beef broth. They also told people to keep their mouths and noses covered with masks in public.

Image courtesy: National Museum of Health and Medicine

In other areas quarantines were imposed and public places such as schools, theatres and churches were closed. Libraries stopped lending books and strict sanitary measures were passed to make spitting in the streets illegal.

Due to World War I, there was a shortage of doctors in some areas. Many of the physicians who were left became ill themselves. Schools and other buildings were turned into makeshift hospitals, where medical students had to step up to help the overwhelmed physicians.

Effects

Though the severity of COVID-19 has not gotten to the level of the Spanish flu, most of the effects the world is experiencing now are very relatable.

The Spanish flu killed with reckless abandon, leaving bodies piled up to such an extent that funeral parlours and cemeteries were overwhelmed. Family members were left to dig graves for their deceased loved ones. Strained state and local health centres also closed, hampering efforts to chronicle the spread of the flu and provide much-needed information to the public. Similar scenes are being witnessed in Italy today, which has so far recorded the highest number of deaths due to COVID-19.

The Spanish flu also adversely affected the economy as the deaths created a shortage of farmworkers, which in turn affected the summer harvest. A lack of staff and resources put other basic services such as waste collection and mail delivery under pressure. COVID-19 has seen some companies send their employees home on unpaid leave and others have imposed pay cuts. If the situation worsens, a majority is likely to lose their jobs.

Fake news during this time was also a problem. Even as people were dying, there were attempts to make money by advertising fake cures to desperate victims. On June 28, 1918, a public notice appeared in the British papers advising people of the symptoms of the flu. It however turned out this was actually an advertisement for Formamints, a tablet made and sold by a vitamin company. The advert stated that the mints were the “best means of preventing the infective processes” and that everyone, including children, should suck four or five of these tablets a day until they felt better.

Image courtesy: ICDS

Fake news has been a concern since the outbreak of COVID-19, with the Internet making it even easier to spread it. See some of our fact checks on the subject here.

The deadliness of WW1 coupled with censorship of the press and poor record-keeping made tracking and reporting on the virus very tedious. This explains why the flu remains of interest to date as some questions are yet to be answered. In contrast, Media coverage on COVID-19 has been commendable and very useful to the public in providing much-needed answers.

Treatment/Vaccine

When the Spanish flu hit, medical technology and countermeasures were limited or non-existent at the time. No diagnostic tests or influenza vaccines existed. The federal government also lacked a centralized role in helping to plan and initiate interventions during the pandemic.

Many doctors prescribed medication that they felt would be effective in alleviating symptoms, including aspirin. Patients were advised to take up to 30 grams per day, a dose now known to be toxic. It is now believed that some of the deaths were actually caused or hastened by aspirin poisoning.

The first licensed flu vaccine appeared in America in the 1940s and from there on, manufacturers could routinely produce vaccines that would help control and prevent future pandemics.

Fast forward to 2020; clinical trials of COVID-19 treatments/vaccines are either ongoing or recruiting patients. The drugs being tested range from repurposed flu treatments to failed Ebola drugs, blood pressure drug (Losartan), an immunosuppressant (Actemra- an arthritis drug) and malaria treatments developed decades ago.

An antiviral drug called Favipiravir or Avigan, developed by Fujifilm Toyama Chemical in Japan is showing promising outcomes in treating at least mild to moderate cases of COVID-19.

As of now, doctors are using available drugs and health support systems such us ventilators to alleviate symptoms. There have been over 500,000 recoveries so far.

Doctors in China, South Korea, France and the U.S. have been using Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine on some patients with promising results. The FDA is organizing a formal clinical trial of the drug, which has already been approved for the treatment of malaria, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Mistakes

The mistakes and delays in taking quick action we are experiencing today with COVID-19 are not new. In the summer of 1918, a second wave of the Spanish flu returned to the American shores as infected soldiers came back home. With no vaccine available, it was the responsibility of the local authorities to come up with plans to protect the public, at a time when they were under pressure to appear patriotic and with a censored media downplaying the disease’s spread.

Some bad decisions were made in the process. In Philadelphia for instance, the response came in too little too late. The then director of Public Health and Charities for the city, Dr Wilmer Krusen, insisted that the increasing fatalities were not the Spanish flu but the normal flu. This left 15,000 dead and another 200,000 sick. Only then did the city close down public places.

The End Of the Pandemic

The pandemic came to an end by the end of the summer of 1919. Those who were infected either died or developed immunity. The world has experienced other flu outbreaks since then but none as deadly as the Spanish flu.

The Asian flu (H2N2), first Identified in China from 1957-1958, killed around 2 million people worldwide. The Hong Kong (H3N2), first detected in Hong Kong, from 1968-1969, killed about 1 million people. Between 1997-2003, Bird flu (H5N1), first detected in Hong Kong, killed over 300 people. More recently in 2009-2010, the Swine flu (H1N1), which originated from Mexico, killed over 18,000 people.

The world’s population has increased from 1.8 billion to 7.7 billion since 1918. Animals alike, which are used for food, have also increased significantly, giving room for more hosts for novel flu viruses to infect people. Transport systems have gotten better making global movement of people and goods much easier and faster, further widening the spread of viruses to other geographical regions.

Even though considerable medical, technological and societal advancements have been made since 1918, the best defence against the current pandemic continues to be the development of vaccine or herd immunity. The biggest challenge, however, is the time required to manufacture a new vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, it generally takes about 20 weeks to select and manufacture a new vaccine.

Dr Eddy Okoth Odari, a senior lecturer and researcher of Medical Virology in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology breaks it down as follows:

“It is anticipated that “herd immunity” would protect the vulnerable groups. We must, however, appreciate that natural “herd immunity” may only occur when a sizeable number of the population gets infected. I note with concern that we may not know and should not gamble with the immunity or health of our populations. This would then call for an “induced herd immunity” through vaccination. Therefore as at now, we must increase our efforts in developing an effective vaccine.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) published instructions for countries to use in developing their own national pandemic plans, as well as a checklist for pandemic influenza risk and impact management. But even with all these plans, there are still loopholes that could still be devastating in the face of a pandemic, as we are currently witnessing.

Healthcare systems are getting overwhelmed and some hospitals and doctors are struggling to meet the demand from the number of patients requiring care. The manufacture and distribution of medications, products and life-saving medical equipment such as ventilators, masks and gloves have also significantly increased, seeing as there is already a shortage being experienced. Dr Okoth has a good explanation for this:

“Translation of research findings into proper policies has been slow since policy formulators have insisted on evidence. For example, as early as March 2019, publications had hinted into a possibility of a virus crossing over from bats to human populations in China, but unfortunately, there was no proper preparedness and if any, perhaps the magnitude of this potential infection was underestimated. Finally, the geopolitical wars and political inclinations among the superpowers are not helping much in the war against infectious diseases. When the pandemic started it was viewed as a Chinese problem, in fact, other nations insisted in it being called a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus”. Even with clear evidence that the virus would spread outside China, the WHO (perhaps to appear neutral) insisted that China was containing the virus and delayed in declaring this a pandemic – the net result of this was that other countries became reluctant in upscaling their public health measures, yet other countries seem to have been keen not to be on the bad books of China.”

There is no telling how long the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will go on for or when and how it will end, but global preparation for pandemics clearly still warrant improvement as Dr Okoth advises.

“Perhaps the lessons that we learn here is that diseases will not need permission to cross borders and since the world has become a global village, there should be proper investments in global health and scientific research.”

This article was originally published by Africa Uncensored. Graphics by Clement Kumalija.

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Peris Gachahi is a reporter at Africa Uncensored.She is passionate about human interest stories told through in-depth documentaries, data stories and digital storytelling.

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Punitive Government Policies Jeopardise Kenya’s Food Security

The government is criminalising Kenyan farmers and leaving the country’s food security at the mercy of multinational corporations.

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Punitive Government Policies Jeopardise Kenya’s Food Security
Photo: Adrian Infernus on Unsplash
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By 2021 your typical Kenyan smallholder farmer was producing 75 per cent of the foods consumed in the country. Yet the draconian laws imposed on the agriculture sector by the government have been facilitating their exploitation by private sector actors including multinational corporations. This is in total contradiction with President Uhuru Kenyatta’s move to include food security in his Big Four Agenda and begs the question of how the country can achieve food security when farmers are discouraged from producing food by these punitive laws.

Recently, there was an uproar on social media regarding the Livestock Bill 2021. The point of contention in the yet to be gazetted Bill is a clause that bars Kenyan farmers from keeping bees for commercial purposes unless they are registered under the Apiary Act. The government, through the Permanent Secretary for Livestock Mr Harry Kimutai, tried to justify this by saying that the aim of registering beekeepers is to commercialise beekeeping instead of it being a traditional practice.

Local pastoralist, agrarian and forest-dwelling communities have practiced beekeeping since time immemorial and it has been part of the subsistence economy of smallholder farmers who pass on this rich knowledge and expertise from generation to generation.

Bee-reaucracy

In its current form, the Livestock Bill 2021 will drive smallholder beekeepers out of honey production and pave the way for multinational corporations under the guise of regulating the sector. It is no different from the Agricultural Sector Transformation and Growth Strategy 2019-2029 that seeks to move farmers out of farming into “more productive jobs”, opening the door for their exploitation and impoverishment by agro-capitalists.

In a recent media interview, Mr Kimutai said that Kenyan honey is contaminated with pesticide residues. But if the government is indeed concerned about improving honey production, it should start by banning the use of toxic pesticides that are detrimental to bees and contaminate the quality of honey. Pesticides such as Deltamethrin have been found to be toxic to bees yet they are still used in Kenya.

Local pastoralist, agrarian and forest-dwelling communities have practiced beekeeping since time immemorial.

Section 93 subsection(1) of the Bill bars the importation, manufacturing, compounding, mixing or selling of any animal foodstuff other than a product that the authority may by order declare to be an approved animal product. This offence attracts a fine of KSh500,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both.

Smallholder livestock farmers in Kenya have been growing “napier grass” to feed their cows and for sale to other farmers. Do these new regulations mean that they shall be committing an offence by growing their own feed and selling it within their localities?

Another punitive regulation is the Crops (Irish Potato) Regulations 2019, that requires transporters, traders and dealers to be registered with their counties, failure to which they face up to KSh5 million in fines, three years imprisonment, or both. This regulation also punishes an unregistered farmer with a one-year imprisonment or KSh500,000 or both, for growing a scheduled crop. It is no coincidence that capitalist-funded organisations like Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) applaud the Irish Potato regulations as a new dawn for Kenyan farmers.

Bee-reaucracyThrough the Seed and Plant Varieties Act 2012, the government once again fails to protect farmers from capitalist exploitation. Part 1 of the Act defines selling as including barter, exchange and offering or exposing for a product for sale, taking away a farmer’s right to sell, share and exchange seed, a right that is recognised in the constitution.

Part 2 section 3 of the Act prohibits the sale of uncertified seed. The good old practice of selling and sharing seeds is further criminalised in section 7(5) which requires only seed appearing in the Variety Index or the National Variety List to be sold. This limits farmers from selling their varieties which they have been sharing, exchanging and selling for generations. Moreover, this automatically means that farmers selling their seed varieties are committing an offence if such varieties are not listed in the index.

Further, section 18 part 4 of this act allows for the discovery of a plant variety whether growing in the wild or occurring as a genetic variant, whether artificially induced or not. This section allows for the discovery of farmers’ indigenous seeds by multinational corporations keen to patent them for profit.

It is no coincidence that capitalist-funded organisations like Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA) applaud the Irish Potato regulations as a new dawn for Kenyan farmers.

The implication here is that since farmers’ seed varieties are not registered or owned by anyone, anybody can obtain the seeds of any crop variety, apply for their registration and claim their “discovery”. Farmers who have been conserving and reusing the “discovered” seeds will then lose the right to continue doing so and they will be required to pay royalties to the new “owners” of these seeds.

This act contravenes certain provisions of the constitution, in particular Article 11 (3) (b) of the Kenya Constitution 2010 which states that parliament shall enact legislation to recognise and protect the ownership of indigenous seeds and plant varieties, their genetic and diverse characteristics and their use by the communities of Kenya.

Foreign laws

The parliament has forfeited its obligation to enact laws that protect and enhance our intellectual property rights  over the indigenous knowledge of the biodiversity and the genetic resources of Kenyan communities  as mandated by Article 69 (1) (a) of the Kenyan constitution. It has allowed external actors to pirate local resources and trample indigenous rights.

Patenting indigenous seeds, barring farmers from keeping bees, and regulating the growing and selling of animal feed and potatoes is theft of the commons. The government is in cahoots with large corporations determined to kill the smallholder farmers’ sources of livelihood while singing about food security being part of the Big Four Agenda.

Foreign lawWhat sense does it make to frustrate smallholder farmers who grow 75 per cent of our food to serve the interests of imperialist multinational corporations keen on holding our farmers at ransom through abhorrent fines?

Patenting indigenous seeds, barring farmers from keeping bees, and regulating the growing and selling of animal feed and potatoes is theft of the commons.

It is time to reclaim and protect the commons that our communities have for a very long time thrived on. In her book Reclaiming the commons Dr Vandana Shiva points out that indigenous communities, including farmers, co-create and co-evolve biodiversity with nature, practises that have seen them overcome ecological challenges for generations. Our policies, plans and laws need to protect these practices for posterity.

Our parliamentarians should endeavour to defend our biodiversity, indigenous cultures and national systems – reclaiming the commons. We need policies that will allow farmers to produce food using indigenous seeds that are readily available and that they can be share amongst themselves. We need policies that will allow farmers to produce safer and more healthy food in an environmentally safe way, not punitive policies designed to eliminate farmers and have our food system controlled by corporations out to make profits at the expense of our health and our environment.

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Tech Disruption in the Agricultural Sector

The future of farming in Kenya counties, whether in knowledge sharing, collaborations, funding, or market access primarily lies in the farmer’s abilities to harness the respective strengths of the available and emerging Disruptive Agricultural Technologies. As the tech-platforms become cheaper, more available and affordable farmers yield and fortunes will likely inch upwards.

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Tech Disruption in the Agricultural Sector
Photo: Tyler Mullins on Unsplash
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Disruptive technologies in agriculture (DATs) have been in Kenya since the early 1900s and can simply be defined as the digital and technical innovations that enable farmers and agri-firms to increase their productivity, efficiency, and competitive edge.

These platforms essentially help local farmers make more precise decisions about resource use through accurate, timely, and location-specific price, weather predictions. The agronomic data and information that they provide in Kenya is becoming increasingly important in the context of climate change. Besides, leveling the playing field, it can make small-scale or local marginalized farmers in Kenya to be more competitive.

Sophisticated off-line digital agri-tech can provide opportunities even in poorly-connected rural contexts, or with marginalized groups who have lower access to information and markets. In short, Disruptive Agricultural Technologies (DATs) are overturning the sector status quo.

Tech Disruption in the Agricultural Sector

Some of the key disruptive technologies in agriculture (DAT’s) include Waterwatch Cooperative in Kenya (Real-time alert system), Tulaa and Farmshine (Digital platform for finding buyers and linking buyers and sellers).

There is also Agri-wallet (platform for input credit/e-wallets/insurance products), dutch-based Agrocares operating in Kenya and Ujuzi Kilimo (portable soil testers, satellite images, remote sensing) as well as SunCulture (solar-powered irrigation pumps)

These platforms have helped to facilitate access to local markets in counties such as Makueni and West Pokot, improve nutritional outcomes, and enhance resilience to climate change. Disruptive agricultural technologies are designed to help stakeholders by reducing the costs of linking various actors of the agri-food system both within and across countries through faster provision, processing, and analyzing of large amounts of data.

The Disruptive Agricultural Technologies Landscape 

Over 75% of Disruptive Agricultural Technologies are digital. The remaining 25% of non-digital are either focused on energy (solar), or producers/suppliers of bio-products for agriculture.

Approximately 32% of the Disruptive Agricultural Technologies aim to enhance agricultural productivity, 26% are working to improve market linkages, 23% are engaged in data analytics, and another 15% are working on financial inclusion.

According to a 2019 World Bank report, Kenya has become a leading agri-tech hub with nearly 60 scalable Disruptive Agricultural Technologies (DATs) operational in the country, followed by South Africa and Nigeria. Kenya is said to have the third largest technology incubation and acceleration hub in the region. Examples of those technologies in Kenya include: Data-connected devices which use ICT to collect, store, and analyze data. This includes GPS, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. The Africa’s Regional Data Cube hosted in Nairobi,Kenya is a tool that helps various countries address issues related to agriculture, water, and sanitation. 

The use of robotics and automation in farming in Kenya has gained widespread acceptance. For instance, drones are used to monitor and improve the efficiency of agricultural operations and its usage is governed by the Civil Aviation Act.

Majority of farmers in Kenya are smallholder farmers and having access to Disruptive agricultural technologies helps even the competition with medium and large scale farmers as tools are created for both low and high connectivity areas.

Over 83 percent of Disruptive agricultural technologies are e-marketplaces that do not require high connectivity. Example is Twiga Foods whose digital platform connects retailers and food manufacturers, delivering a streamlined and efficient supply chain.

Kenya’s financial sector is characterized by a robust mobile money ecosystem (MPESA) with over 70 percent of the population using mobile money regularly which increases its potential for farming for smallholder farmers.

Despite that one of the biggest challenges facing the agriculture sector in Kenya is access to finance. This is largely due to the high risk of loaning to small holder farmers. FinTech apps use alternative data and machine learning to improve the credit scoring of smallholder farmers.

These apps help minimize the gap between the demand for credit and the supply of financing for smallholder farmers. Kenya is a hotspot for agricultural apps. There are numerous organizations working on developing digital solutions that combine precision farming with remote sensing data.

Connectivity and Adoption of DATSs

A significant number of the existing digital tools and technologies can be utilized in areas with low network to improve the productivity of the agriculture sector. Despite the increasing number of mobile phone users in Kenya, the penetration rate among smallholder farmers remains relatively low.

It may be difficult for many of these smallholder farmers to adopt Disruptive agricultural technologies (DATs) due to the high costs, complexity and capabilities required. Meanwhile for large scale farmers, the DATs highly boost their productivity, especially if they have already developed the capabilities in-house to accelerate adoption of these tech platforms. Therefore, from the onset, we need to understand who uses the technology and the implications of this.

Kenya has a well-established start-up ecosystem, made up of mostly young, adaptive and brilliant innovators who are leveraging low-cost digital platforms. This is coupled with funding from international donors and incubation activities address agricultural value-chain issues. There is a mix of actors for Disruptive agricultural technologies depending on the categorization of the technology.

This ranges from DATS that support creation, facilitate adoption and oversee diffusion of innovation.

These actors need strong and cohesive ties, both between, the regulatory bodies, farmers, county leaders, financiers, state agencies, and fellow developers. The nature of the collaborations could be cohesive and cooperative, where all the local actors have shared goals, to fragmented, where not all actors are on board, causing resistance and slowing down the process.

Despite a myriad challenges these radical and innovative (DATs) are revolutionizing and changing the farming landscape in the counties and working with the Ministry of Agriculture using technologies to deliver agricultural services more efficiently and accountable.

The future of farming in Kenya counties whether in knowledge sharing, collaborations, funding, or market access primarily lies in the farmer’s abilities to harness the respective strengths of the available and emerging Disruptive Agricultural Technologies. As the tech-platforms become cheaper, more available and affordable farmers yield and fortunes will likely inch upwards.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Revealed: Majority of US Voters Support Patent Waiver on COVID-19 Vaccines

Shock poll reveals majority support for Joe Biden to suspend TRIPS and support global vaccination.

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A new poll finds that 60% of US voters want President Joe Biden to endorse the motion by more than 100 lower- and middle-income countries to temporarily waive patent protections on Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organization. Only 28% disagreed.

The survey, carried out by Data for Progress and the Progressive International, shows a super majority of 72% registered Democrats want Biden to temporarily waive patent barriers to speed vaccine roll out and reduce costs for developing nations. Even registered Republicans support the action by margin of 50% in favor to 36% opposed.

The new polling shows that “there is a popular mandate from the US American people to put human life and economic recovery ahead of corporate profits and a broken intellectual property system,” said David Adler, the general coordinator of the Progressive International. Burcu Kilic, research director of the access to medicines program at Public Citizen and member of Progressive International’s Council, called on Biden to “listen to Americans who put him in power” and “do the right thing.”

Revealed: Majority of US Voters Support Patent Waiver on COVID-19 VaccinesDue to WTO intellectual property rules, countries are barred from producing the current leading approved vaccines, including US-produced Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. In October of 2020, South Africa and India presented the WTO with a proposal to temporarily waive these rules for the duration of the pandemic so that vaccines can be manufactured across different countries, increasing their availability, reducing their cost and ensuring that they are delivered to everyone on earth as quickly as possible.

In the absence of the waiver, the current manufacturing and distribution rates are unlikely to stem the pandemic’s momentum, especially as new variants, which are more infectious and seem to evade the acquired immunity from prior infection or from the current vaccines, continue to emerge. The US under President Trump joined other richer nations to block them.

The shock poll reveals a level of public support for intellectual property waivers that will likely add to growing congressional pressure on Biden to join those pushing to save lives through a global vaccination drive. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky is working on a letter to the president to which Schakowsky says more than 60 lawmakers have added their signature, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Senator Bernie Sanders, Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, responded to the poll saying the US should be “leading the global effort to end the coronavirus pandemic.” According to Sanders, “a temporary WTO waiver, which would enable the transfer of vaccine technologies to poorer countries, is a good way to do that.”

Responding to the new poll, Representative Ilhan Omar called on Biden to “support a waiver to boost the production of vaccines, treatment and tests worldwide,” arguing that it was “not just an issue of basic morality, but of public health.”

Adler argues, “US Americans know rigged rules to prop up big pharma’s profits are not in their interest. The longer the virus has to spread, the more it can mutate and become vaccine-resistant. Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to public health and economic wellbeing everywhere. If intellectual property restrictions are not lifted, the pandemic will go on for longer, killing more people and damaging more livelihoods.”

The threat to the Global South from vaccine apartheid is a “death sentence for millions around the world—and it is because giant pharmaceutical corporations would rather maximize profit than provide vaccines to people who need it,” according to Omar.

Sanders agrees, saying “the bottom line is, the faster we help vaccinate the global population, the safer we will all be. That should be our number one priority, not maximizing the profits of pharmaceutical companies and their shareholders.”

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