Africa needs an emergency vaccine airlift

Leaders of some of the world's richest nations are coming up short in addressing the global Covid-19 vaccine iniquity

In much of the vaccinated world, life has to a great extent returned to normal. In Britain, large numbers appear to have gone so far as forsaking masks. We still wear them where I live in Malaysia, but with nearly 92 per cent of the adult population having had two jabs, shops, restaurants, gyms and barbers have reopened – albeit with some limits on capacity – and interstate travel within the country is now allowed.

Such freedoms come with a far higher risk in Africa, where a staggeringly low percentage of people have received vaccines. The figure is a mere 5 per cent overall, but that includes countries where the percentage is less than 1 per cent and two states where there is simply no vaccination programme at all, according to WHO.

When advanced countries are mulling third booster shots and hundreds of millions have not had one, the lack of equity is an iniquity. So the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown was right to call last weekend for an immediate emergency airlift of 240 million unused vaccines to Africa – an action that could save 100,000 lives, he said.

"While vaccines have been pledged for donation from all donors, we are not getting the vaccines into people’s arms and urgently need a month-to-month timetable to prevent further loss of lives,” Mr Brown told the Observer newspaper in his capacity as a WHO adviser. “An immediate emergency airlift of 240 million vaccines this month from the Global North to the Global South should be followed by the transfer of a further 760 million vaccines transferred by February. This would be the biggest peacetime public policy decision, which could prevent many of the one million Covid-induced deaths projected over the next year.”

Mr Brown is urging the leaders of the US, the EU, Canada and the UK to take the lead, and there is no doubting the urgency of the situation. While the BBC reports that only 15 per cent of the more than one billion doses pledged by the G7 and EU have actually been delivered, Mr Brown warned that 40 per cent of deaths from Covid-19 on the continent have occurred since the beginning of August. "We need pledges of doses by wealthier countries to materialise now," said Richard Mihigo, from the WHO's regional office for Africa, last month.

It is true that there are other parts of the world where vaccination rates are still low – they are below 10 per cent in Vietnam and Taiwan, for instance. But both places were able to operate highly successful containment strategies. In Africa, by contrast, there was not the state capacity to do so in many countries.

Quite apart from the moral imperative, wealthy nations have their own reasons to care about the health of the continent's peoples. As Chad President Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno told the UN General Assembly in September: "The virus doesn’t know continents, borders, even less nationalities or social statuses. The countries and regions that aren’t vaccinated will be a source of propagating and developing new variants of the virus."

And we know now that it is well nigh impossible to keep virulent new strains out, as New Zealand's experience with the delta variant has shown.

But let us return to a moral reckoning over the access different countries have had to the weapons they need to fight this pandemic. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has put it bluntly.

Quote
Every passing day is a day lost in the battle to contain Covid and save lives
Gordon Brown

"The global community has not sustained the principles of solidarity and co-operation in securing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines,” he said, also at the UN. “It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82 per cent of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1 per cent has gone to low-income countries.”

Namibia's President Hage Geingob was even more forthright, calling the disparity “vaccine apartheid".

One could, of course, look into all sorts of reasons as to why there has been an overwhelming lack of doses in Africa, from the failure of big pharma to support vaccine independence on the continent, to problems in the Covax supply chain – notably from the Serum Institute of India, on which many countries were relying. But these do not help the situation on the ground now when, as Mr Brown said: "Every passing day is a day lost in the battle to contain Covid and save lives."

As prime minister, Mr Brown's inability to cloak his innate earnestness and seriousness with a more demotic approach did not always serve him well. But since leaving office more than a decade ago, that implacable sense of moral purpose has lent him a stature that only a few former politicians attain, such as former US president Jimmy Carter. Take heed when either man speaks: we all know that neither could possibly have anything to gain from it themselves.

Today we strain to re-examine the past and are frequently judgemental about the sins of commission and omission of generations long gone. I believe that if wealthy nations do not answer Mr Brown's call for an immediate emergency airlift of millions of unused vaccines to Africa, they too will be judged, and very harshly, by historians yet to come, who will be shocked that in the 21st century the Global North could callously ignore the plight of the Global South – when they could so easily have helped.

Published: October 19th 2021, 7:43 AM
Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National