Will the EU finally be true to its stated vaccine support for Africa?
The EU has now given the greenlight on “booster” shots for those over 18, six months after their second shot—a fact which is set to further harm vaccine access efforts. Indeed, studies show that the distribution of boosters in developed world regions like the EU, US, UK and Israel will reduce the vaccine doses sent to Africa by as much as 25% by the end of the year.
The news comes in the wake of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) revelation that just 9 out of 54 countries in Africa met their target of vaccinating 10% of the population against Covid-19 by the end of September. Approximately half of African countries, particularly the most densely populated nations, have vaccinated less than 3% of citizens. At this glacial pace it is highly likely these countries will miss the next benchmark of 40% vaccination by year-end.
While vaccine hesitancy and inadequate medical infrastructure continue to impinge on the continent’s low inoculation rates, the WHO’s programme coordinator for vaccine development in Africa Dr Richard Mihigo emphasised that, “the major issue has been a supply issue rather than a demand issue.” This shortfall is arguably a direct result of vaccine hoarding by Western countries, not least European Member States.
Vaccine supplies faltering from the DRC to Senegal
The United Nations General Assembly saw African leaders dedicating their speeches to the ongoing disparity of Covid-19 vaccine distribution across the globe. In particular, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi urged the materialization of “the promises made to Africa”. Vaccine shortages mean that only approximately 1 in 1,000 people have received at least one shot. In the country’s capital of Kinshasa, home to 12 million, less than 40,000 Covid-19 shots had been given out by the end of last month.
Even so, as Tshisekedi pointed out, neither the DRC nor Africa have taken the challenge laying down. In order to tackle the lack of vaccine supplies, the DRC decided to authorise SinoVac, Moderna and Pfizer for public distribution in order to offer a variety of vaccines for the country. Tshisekedi’s endorsement of these vaccines is also seen as crucial to fight vaccine scepticism in the DRC and East Africa more generally.
However, in his UN speech, Tshisekedi demanded the global community “to ensure a sufficient and rapid supply of medicines and equipment necessary for the care of patients” and “to generalize vaccination by supplying vaccines to those who do not produce them and by providing them with local production capacities.” Most importantly, he also launched an appeal to the international community to “support the project to create the African Medicines Agency” in what would be a big step to increase Africa’s cloud in the medical regulation sector and provide it with a higher degree of independence in these matters.
The call becomes more potent the more other countries are considered. Senegal’s vaccination rollout is now finally making timid progress, but doses are few and far between, with many facilities only able to offer second doses to those lucky enough to have received the first jab. In Namibia, which falls 130 out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index, the government has had to buy more vaccines than they received from COVAX—leading President Hage Geingob to label the inequity a “vaccine apartheid”.
If it is true that Covid-19 cases are falling across the African continent since the peak of nearly 1,000 daily fatalities in July, the risk of further variants is high. The avoidable deaths in the region have now reached 200,000 and counting. As Carrie Teicher, head of programs at medical charity Doctors Without Borders commented, “It’s unfathomable that millions more people are going to die waiting for vaccines just because of where they live”.
The EU’s part of the blame
The world’s vaccine-rich countries have a key role to play in the vaccine inequity playing out across the globe, since the WHO’s COVAX dose sharing facility has received just 15% of what was initially promised so far. Nevertheless, some countries and international organisations are pulling their weight more than others. The World Bank, for one, committed $100 million to the Cote d’Ivoire for the acquisition of Covid vaccines and the reinforcement of the vaccination campaign, allowing the country to diversify its vaccine supply sources and improve deployment.
While in the aftermath of the intervention, Côte d’Ivoire increased its daily vaccination rate from 2,000 to 20,000 after four weeks, the direct vaccine donations by the US, such as the Johnson & Johnson vaccines sent to the tiny nation of Eswatini bolstered paltry COVAX doses and increased vaccination rates to nearly 20%.
In the face of these examples, the EU’s inaction is glaring. In her State of the Union address mid-September, President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen criticised unnamed actors whom she claimed are using vaccine donations to “gain influence”. But this buck passing masked the fact that the EU has consistently undersupplied the COVAX facility with respect to the initial doses promised, and continued to block international petitions to waive vaccine patents which would enable universal production of the life-saving formulas. The recent decision to deliver booster shots blatantly ignores the WHO’s call for a two-month halt.
Vaccination or bust
Aside from preventing further avoidable deaths, the successful catalysation of vaccination campaigns across Africa nations is crucial to economic recovery. The World Bank suggests the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa will grow by 3.5% next year after a contraction of 2.0% in 2020, but declare this figure could rise to 5.1% if there is an uptick in Covid vaccinations. The International Chamber of Commerce warned that the world’s economy risks losing as much as $9.2 trillion if vaccine inequity continues, with the world’s poorest countries shouldering half the cost.
With the G20 Summit in Rome just weeks away, it is high time African countries such as the DRC, Senegal and Namibia received the unwavering support of powerful international bodies like the EU to boost vaccinations and kickstart their economies.