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NGO coalition pens open letter to Taoiseach calling for urgent waiver to allow Covid-19 technology-sharing

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” For our politicians, that time is right now.

24 February 2021

The pandemic is still raging across the world – and without strong moral leadership, people in developing countries will suffer the most.

Given the limited global supply, many people in low- and middle-income countries won’t have access to vaccines until at least next year, while it’s been reported that if current trends continue, the world’s poorest countries could have to wait until 2024 for mass immunisation.

Not only is this level of inequity a catastrophic moral failure that will lead to needless suffering and loss of life, ongoing outbreaks could lead to new vaccine-resistant variants developing. Without urgent united action to achieve herd immunity in developing nations, the health crisis and resulting economic crisis here and worldwide will continue.

That’s why today, a coalition of Irish organisations, networks and unions, wrote an open letter to Taoiseach Micheál Martin urgently requesting Ireland’s support for proposals to allow Covid-19 vaccine technology to be shared openly through an emergency waiver at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This emergency waiver would allow more vaccines and treatments to be produced on a global scale.

The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO members to provide long-term monopoly protections for medicines, tests and the technologies used to produce them.

But after a global campaign by public health and development groups, in 2001 the WTO issued a binding declaration about better balancing TRIPS intellectual property protections and public health needs.

With the EU currently blocking the waiver, the letter – coordinated by Oxfam Ireland and signed by Access to Medicine Ireland, ActionAid, Amnesty International Ireland, Comhlámh, Concern, Dóchas, Goal, the Irish Global Health Network, INMO, MSF, Oxfam Ireland and Trócaire – details how the EU’s current position threatens the prospects of ending the pandemic, despite the waiver being supported by more than 100 nations at the WTO.

The Coalition writes:

Ireland has a well-deserved reputation of supporting the human rights of the world’s poorest people. We are respected for our constructive engagement, acknowledging the importance of collective efforts amongst states for the problems that pay no heed to borders, such as the coronavirus pandemic. With so many of the world’s poorer nations supporting this emergency waiver already, you can help maintain Ireland’s moral and public health leadership in the world by siding with the majority to prioritise saving lives. Indeed, not doing so is self-defeating, as it is clear that the sooner the world’s population is vaccinated, the sooner EU citizens are safe.

While the signatories acknowledge that the waiver will not completely solve the problem, it will allow for a temporary space within the WTO rules to empower governments to move quicker when accessing intellectual property-protected technologies needed to protect public health.

Thus, we respectfully request that you break with the unconscionable policies the EU has supported before the next WTO General Council meeting of March 1-2 and announce that Ireland will no longer support opposition to the temporary, emergency Covid-19 WTO waiver of certain TRIPS provisions.

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Irish coalition request urgent support for emergency WTO waiver for sharing of Covid-19 vaccine technology in open letter to Taoiseach

  • Open letter to Micheál Martin details moral and economic consequences of continued opposition to temporary, emergency measures being proposed by 100 countries at the WTO

  • Covid-vaccine supply limits leave all countries and populations at risk  

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Today, a coalition of Irish organisations, networks and unions, wrote an open letter to Taoiseach Micheál Martin urgently requesting Ireland’s support for proposals to allow Covid-19 vaccine technology to be shared openly through an emergency waiver at the World Trade Organisation. This emergency waiver would allow more vaccines and treatments to be produced on a global scale.

The letter, coordinated by Oxfam Ireland and signed by Access to Medicine Ireland, ActionAid, Amnesty International Ireland, Comhlámh, Concern, Dóchas, Goal, the Irish Global Health Network, INMO, MSF, Oxfam Ireland and Trócaire, details how the EU’s current position threatens the prospects of ending the Covid-19 pandemic. Namely, by blocking the “Waiver from Certain Provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the Prevention, Containment and Treatment of Covid-19” – a waiver that is supported by more than 100 nations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The current limits to global Covid-19 vaccine supplies could result in some countries having to wait until at least 2023 for mass immunisation, meaning all countries and populations are at greater risk of new variants developing which current Covid-19 vaccines may not remedy. The coalition warns that without united global action, the Covid-health crisis, and resulting economic fallout and disruption will continue to have grave effects here in Ireland and worldwide.

The Coalition state:

“Such global inequity is not only a catastrophic moral failure that will lead to needless suffering and loss of life. Ongoing outbreaks anywhere mean greater risk of new variants developing against which vaccines are not effective and/or that can evade the antibodies developed by survivors. There simply is no way to defeat Covid-19 in Ireland without united action worldwide."

“Ireland has a well-deserved reputation of supporting the human rights of the world’s poorest people. We are respected for our constructive engagement, acknowledging the importance of collective efforts amongst states for the problems that pay no heed to borders, such as the coronavirus pandemic. With so many of the world’s poorer nations supporting this emergency waiver already, you can help maintain Ireland’s moral and public health leadership in the world by siding with the majority to prioritise saving lives. Indeed, not doing so is self-defeating, as it is clear that the sooner the world’s population is vaccinated, the sooner EU citizens are safe.

"Thus, we respectfully request that you break with the unconscionable policies the EU has supported before the next WTO General Council meeting of March 1-2 and announce that Ireland will no longer support opposition to the temporary, emergency Covid-19 WTO waiver of certain TRIPS provisions.”

END

Contact

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | 087 912 3165

Note to the Editor

  • Read the Open Letter in Full here.
  • Spokespeople are available for interview
  • The letter was coordinated by Oxfam Ireland and signed by Access to Medicine Ireland, ActionAid, Amnesty, Comhlámh, Concern, Dóchas, Goal, the Irish Global Health Network, INMO, MSF, Oxfam Ireland and Trócaire
  • The letter has also been sent to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar; Minister Eamon Ryan; Minister Simon Coveney; Minister Stephen Donnelly; Minister Thomas Byrne; Dr Tony Holohan, CMO; Ruairí De Búrca, Director Irish Aid. 
  • The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO members to provide lengthy monopoly protections for medicines, tests and the technologies used to produce them. After a global campaign by public health and development groups, in 2001 the WTO issued a binding declaration about better balancing TRIPS intellectual property protections and public health needs. A temporary emergency Covid-19 waiver is in line with the WTO members’ agreement that intellectual property rules cannot create barriers to health treatments for diseases that unnecessarily cost human lives and undermine the global economy.   
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Ireland set to oppose new tax transparency law at key EU vote

24 February 2021

Efforts at the EU to bring greater transparency to the activities of multinational companies is once again set to be opposed by Ireland, a coalition of development organisations has warned.

The new law, known as public country by country reporting, would require companies to report publicly on the full spectrum of their activities in the jurisdictions in which they operate, and has the potential to help identify possibly illegal instances of profit shifting by multinational companies.

The EU’s Competitiveness Council, made up of Business and Enterprise Ministers from the 27 Member states, is responsible for negotiating the law. It will meet on Thursday 25 February where member states will be asked to make their position known and Ireland is one of the few remaining countries continuing to oppose the initiative. (1)

ActionAid Ireland, Christian Aid Ireland and Oxfam Ireland, who have been campaigning for over a decade for the introduction of public country by country, are calling on the government to drop their opposition to the measure and to support efforts to bring greater transparency to the profits made and taxes paid by multinationals in the countries in which they work.

The new law would have no impact on the taxation of individual companies, nor would it affect the tax rate, tax base or tax sovereignty of any jurisdiction.

Christian Aid Ireland’s Head of Policy and Advocacy, Sorley McCaughey said: “Compared to some of the changes to international taxation being negotiated at the OECD, public country by country reporting is relatively modest. It is a cost-free change that has only positive benefits that the government should have no hesitation in supporting,”

“At a time when public finances are under extraordinary strain, it’s really important that the public can see whether or not multinational companies are making a fair contribution to the society in which they operate.”

The Government has previously raised technical and procedural objections to try to block country by country reporting, arguing that it should progress through an EU Council meeting of Finance Ministers, which would enable a national veto, as opposed to current plans which only require a simple majority. Despite legal changes to the text to provide reassurances, the Irish government insist they should maintain a veto.

While the Government has insisted it is committed to increased tax transparency, arguing that such measures will dispel accusations over Ireland’s role in global tax avoidance, Ministers have refused to state whether they support the country by country reporting proposal itself should disagreements over the legislative process be resolved.

Ireland’s position is at odds with the majority of other EU members states, the Commission, and the European Parliament’s own legal Service who all share the view that this file is an accounting and company law issue and not a tax issue.

Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive, Jim Clarken, said: “The revelations from multiple leaks like the Paradise Papers and Lux leaks have shown the many ways multinational corporations are shifting profits to avoid tax. Oxfam has documented how such tax avoidance undermines developing countries ability to generate adequate revenues to provide comprehensive public services, such as healthcare and education, which help tackle poverty and foster prosperity. It is untenable that Ireland is attempting to block this basic tax transparency measure. This proposal is a vital step towards making sure that multinational corporations pay their fair share of taxes, in developing as well as developed countries.”

Developing countries are disproportionately affected by multinational shifting profits but have significantly less access to information about multinational's activities than developed countries.

Under current reporting requirements none of Ireland's development partners have access to country by country reports at present and only four African tax administrations can currently receive country by country reports through the system of automatic information exchange. All tax authorities and policy makers would have equal access to country by country reports if they are made publicly available.

A previous report by Christian Aid has found that developing countries are being robbed of revenues worth $416bn a year by abusive and harmful tax practices by companies and wealthy individuals exploiting tax loopholes to avoid paying tax.

ActionAid Ireland CEO, Siobhán McGee, said: “Last year ActionAid reported that big US technology companies are exploiting loopholes in global tax rules to avoid paying as much as $2.8bn in tax a year in developing countries. The World Health Organization estimates that the 20 countries studied by ActionAid need to employ at least 1,790,000 more nurses by 2030 to achieve their benchmark of 40 nurses per 10,000 people. The money lost to tax avoidance could pay for all of these nurses in just three years. In a time of unprecedented health and economic crisis, it is imperative that everybody, including large multinationals, is fully accountable and paying their fair share.”

If agreement is reached formal negotiations between the European Council, Commission, and Parliament to bring into law public country by country reporting would take place over the course of 2021.

Ends

Contact

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | 087 912 3165

Notes for Editors

(1) Due to coronavirus restrictions member countries will verbally indicate on 25 Feb whether they support the initiative, after which each member states EU ambassador will write to the Council during week of 1 March to officially confirm whether they support the initiative or not.

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Nearly 40 percent of Yemen families forced into debt to pay for food and medicine

  • Number of families using debt to buy food has risen by 62 percent  

  • Pharmacists estimate 44 percent increase in debt being used to buy medicine 

Nearly two out of every five families in Yemen currently buy food and medicines using debt, according to Oxfam research published today. The research finds that Yemeni families are trapped in a cycle of informal debt, living precariously and reliant on good will of shopkeepers as they lurch from one month to the next. Many of the people Oxfam spoke with say they can’t borrow essentials unless shopkeepers know they have a monthly income and for many, this means the cash transfers they receive from humanitarian agencies. 

Last year, donors only provided half of the aid money needed for the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and with the 2021 UN humanitarian need budget for Yemen due out imminently, Oxfam is urging the international community to be generous when pledging funds.   

Oxfam’s research found that Yemeni shopkeepers estimate that the number of families using debt to buy food has risen by 62 percent since the conflict in Yemen started in 2015. While pharmacists in estimate an increase of 44 percent in debt being used to purchase medicines.

Layla Mansoor (31) and her family were forced to flee from their home in an active conflict zone in Hodeidah three years ago – they escaped with barely more than the clothes on their backs. Layla says she is often in debt to the shops she buys their food from and each month they owe between 10,000 and 12,000 YER (around USD $11-$15). 

Layla said: “At the moment we’re living a nightmare. Thankfully, until now, we haven’t needed any kind of medical treatment – but I’m afraid that we won’t afford it, if one day we do.” 

Ibrahim Alwazir who carried out the research for Oxfam in Yemen said: “To struggle this hard to be able to provide food and medicine for one's family is an avoidable hardship that millions have to overcome on a daily basis. We need peace so no more Yemenis are forced to flee their homes and live in poverty. Peace will allow people to rebuild their lives and businesses. 

“This war has turned my country into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and it’s only getting worse. We all just want to get back to normal life.”  

Hind Qassem (45) was pregnant when her husband was killed by an artillery shell forcing her to flee with her children.  At first, they lived under a plastic sheet, relying on leftovers given by neighbouring families. Three of her sons suffer from sickle cell anaemia and need blood transfusions every month. 

Hind said: “Now, I receive YER 45,000 (around US$70) every month, yes, it is not enough to cover all our needs, but it helps a lot. I am now able to pay for my children’s treatment and buy some flour and vegetables for us to eat. Shops will now allow us to buy food on credit because we are receiving monthly assistance.” 

Food shop and pharmacy owners both told Oxfam staff that they allow customers to take items on credit because they sympathise with the harsh difficulties they are facing. Some also said that it makes economic sense for their business, while pharmacists said they did not want to feel responsible for someone’s death if they refused credit for medicines. 

Grocery store owner Abdulkareem Salaeh from Sana’a said: "We are left with no choice … We only agree to lend people with a reliable source of income, like employees, business owners, daily wage labourers, or those receiving humanitarian aid, else it will be a loss that we can't afford. We are barely able to cover operational costs and the costs of goods we sell. It's unfortunate."

Concerned business owners told Oxfam that they feel the debt situation is unsustainable as their customers are increasingly unable to pay off all their debt each month and so the rising levels of debt their businesses are carrying mean their future is looking uncertain.  Oxfam is also worried that if shop owners do not have funds to replenish stock the resulting shortages will drive food prices even higher. 

It is estimated that in parts of Yemen one in five children are already severely malnourished and will grow up with life-long medical conditions if they do not receive more food. If business owners are unable to continue offering credit, people will be unable to eat, which will result in even higher levels of malnourishment. What we are witnessing in Yemen now, is potentially just the tip of a much bigger hunger crisis. 

Ends 

Contact
Caroline Reid: caroline.reid@oxfam.org | 087 912 3165

Notes to editors:  

  • Images are available for use upon request
  • Research findings are based on 30 surveys by Oxfam in Yemen of grocery and pharmacy store owners across Sana’a, Hajjah, Ibb and Aden Governorates in November and early December 2020. All surveys were collected near poor and densely populated neighbourhoods within cities and suburban areas, with some of them being close to IDP settlements where humanitarian aid groups are active
  • Oxfam, along with other agencies in Yemen, provides support for struggling families in the form of cash transfers that enables people to choose what they buy and helps stimulate local markets. 
  • Many families who are struggling with debt say that they are living permanently in arrears - using their transfer to pay off what they owe and then run up more debt as they wait for their next aid payment.  This situation is worsening because high levels of inflation, fuelled by the conflict, mean that the value of money is decreasing. In practical terms the same amount of cash buys fewer groceries each month. 
  • Some 24.3 million Yemenis, over 53 percent of the population, currently need humanitarian assistance. This year, 16.2 million Yemenis will rely on food aid to survive, with 17.9 million lacking access to healthcare in a country where only half of health facilities are fully functional. It is estimated that in parts of Yemen one in five children are severely malnourished and will grow up with life-long medical conditions if they do not get more food.  
  • Aid relief information and update  
  • Health care facility information from UN Yemen HRP 2020 
  • Figures for numbers facing starvation and reliant on food aid taken from here 
  • Child malnutrition figures from UNICEF   
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‘They left us in tents in the cold and rain and fear’ – the refugees abandoned on the Greek Islands

When war broke out in Syria in 2015, millions fled. Many risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe – and safety.

They were not alone. Refugees from other countries, driven from their homes due to conflict or persecution, also risked everything for a better life.

Greece, a country quickly overwhelmed as the number of people seeking asylum in Europe increased due to the outbreak of war in Syria in 2015, has since has harshened its stance on asylum as solidarity from member states in responding and sharing the responsibility waned. As a result, thousands of people have found themselves trapped in dangerously overcrowded camps on the Greek Islands of Lesvos, Kos, Samos and Chios.

They went through hell to get to safety. Now they find themselves in a new hell.

Vulnerable people including children, survivors of sexual violence and the elderly are detained without reason.

A child looks around the site of Moria camp, Lesvos, which was destroyed by fire in September 2020. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili / Oxfam

"We don’t even have our basic rights as refugees. We are not free and we don’t know for how long [we will remain detained]. They are replacing our names with numbers, treating us as if were in prison, calling us by our numbers.”

-M. Elderly Syrian refugee under prolonged detention on Kos

Women don’t feel safe in the camps, especially at night.

Women and girls are scared to leave their tents at night, even to go use the toilets. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

"Particularly us single women, [we feel] fear. At night it is dark and we cannot go to the toilet. We feel abandoned. [I would ask Europe] to close down the camp; to transfer people under a safe roof. To stop pushing people back to Turkey."

-R. Single woman asylum seeker on Lesvos

One in five people has attempted suicide.

A woman takes part in a protest. She wants to be transferred to mainland Greece or another European country. Photo: Yousif Al Shewaili/Oxfam

“Life here makes us feel despair. We don’t feel safe and feel mentally burdened by the conditions in which we live. We are waiting for Europe to display more responsibility; to honour human rights and the rights of refugees. We want a life in dignity and safety; for our families and our children.”

-M. Elderly Syrian father of two in Kos

In Samos, adults and children have been bitten by rats, scorpions and snakes.

Refugees in the camps are living in extremely poor and unsafe conditions. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

“We were expecting… the EU to treat us humanly and show more interest because we come from Syria, where there is war. Here everything is different, they are not interested – they left us in tents in the cold and rain and fear.”

-D. Father on Chios

Children are missing out on an education and the opportunity for a better future.

A girl sits in a tent in the site of the former Moria camp. Photo: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam

“We have lived for too long in this camp. Unsanitary conditions are not suitable for my family and myself. We are very tired (mentally). We have health issues. My children cannot have a suitable life in this camp. We want a better life. I hope they [Europe] will not forget us Syrians that come from a war-torn country; that we will be granted asylum."

-H. Syrian family in Kos

Oxfam is calling on EU member states to act in solidarity and uphold and protect a person’s right to seek asylum and to have their application assessed in a fair and timely manner. In addition, it is urging member states to engage in genuine and fair responsibility sharing in relation to refugee relocation and resettlement commitments.

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