Vaccine injustice means nobody is safe until we are all safe

by Amref Health Africa

23 December 2021

There is an African proverb that goes: “One who causes others misfortune also teaches them wisdom.” And if there is anything we have learned from Africa’s COVID-19 experience, it is that for as long as the balance of power is tilted in favor of the wealthier global north, then inequalities in health will continue to persist – and lives will be lost.

The global health system is broken. It is no longer fit for purpose, at least not for the African continent. Nearly two years into the pandemic and just one year shy of the anniversary of the administration of the first COVID-19 vaccines, African countries are still at the back of the queue, waiting for high-income countries to have their fill of vaccines and hoping that enough will be left for us once those with the financial might to procure more vaccines than they need are satisfied.

We have gone from pleading for assistance to demanding accountability from a system that was built to protect the interests of the wealthy, not the vulnerable. Unfortunately, not much has been done to upset the status quo: How else can we explain why, despite making up 17% of the global population, Africa only accounts for 2.8% of the world’s vaccinated people? This is happening as higher-income nations stockpile critical vaccine doses and administer booster shots to already vaccinated citizens.

The low vaccination rates in Africa and other lower-income regions are not a problem of scarcity, whether of infrastructure or finances; they are the result of deeply ingrained inequity within the global health system. As higher-income nations nations choose to prevent African countries from vaccinating their populations, both by hoarding vaccines and by failing to honor commitments to donate vaccines either directly to countries or through the World Health Organization’s global vaccine-sharing programme COVAX, they perpetuate a cycle of inequity intended to oppress the continent. It is neocolonialism at its worst.

What the developed world fails to realize is that the very inequity it perpetuates is what will prolong the pandemic. The recent discovery of the omicron variant – described as the “most worrying we’ve seen” – is evidence of this. While its emergence is concerning, it certainly is not surprising. It couldn’t possibly be when vaccination rates in Africa remain so low that the unchecked spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated populations leaves room for mutation. Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown describes the situation quite succinctly: “Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned – and yet here we are.”

Indeed, here we are, swimming in the miasma of immorality thinly veiled as challenges in global health infrastructure.
But we don’t have to be. It is time for Africa to rise and create the change we need to see. African leaders must realize that nobody is coming to our rescue. They must take responsibility for the health of their populations and move swiftly to create sustainable, African-led decisions to bring an end to this crisis.

We have already seen that the global north’s response to the discovery of the omicron variant by South African scientists has been to impose travel bans on several countries in southern Africa – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The decision is neither warranted nor scientific, but is based on what wealthy countries have done throughout history: Shut Africa out. Never mind that the same variant has been identified in England, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia – none of which are on a travel ban list.

It’s a reaction that is as unfair as it is infuriating. Yet it is also unsurprising, as Africans have for a long time understood that racism in global health is a persistent problem that will occasionally rear its head through media headlines such as those recently published in German and Spanish newspapers. The callous reinforcement of anti-African sentiment by a section of European media contributes significantly to the stigma faced by African countries, which not only hurts Africans both socially and economically, but has wide-ranging impacts on the ability of the world to end the pandemic.

High-income nations, for their part, must understand that we are all in this mess partly because they continue to resist attempts to end stockpiling that limits boosters, and sharing vaccines, licenses, technology, and knowledge. They need to act accordingly if we are to put COVID-19 behind us once and for all.

But even as we hope these nations will finally rediscover their humanity and do the right thing, African countries must realize that we cannot afford to move at a leisurely pace; not when people are dying, both from the disease itself and from its social and economic impacts. Allowing Africa to remain at the mercy of the global north is tantamount to rejecting the wisdom caused by our misfortune. Let he who has ears hear: We need action, and we need it now, because nobody is safe until we are all safe.

Elizabeth Ntonjira, Global Communications Director, Amref Health Africa.

Article first published on’re-all-safe

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