We can win the battle against Covid by working together
The world is now several weeks into the biggest vaccination campaign in history, but Africa is once again in danger of being left behind as wealthier regions race to protect their own citizens first.
Joachim Osur from Amref Health Africa gives us the view from Nairobi.
Although the impact of COVID-19 has varied both within and between countries, no nation, regardless of its wealth, has been spared. Indeed, disease epicentres have consistently been urban settlements, meaning that high-income, widely urbanised countries have been hardest hit. A different pattern is likely to be seen in low- and middle-income countries, many of them in Africa: a protracted epidemic with a slow but consistent rise in cases and deaths.
But, as the WHO Director General has said, no one is safe until we all are.
We have learnt the painful lesson that because we are a globalised world, if one person is infected in New York it poses a risk to citizens of London as well as to those of Nairobi, Abuja, Delhi, and Mexico City. By ignoring humanity’s inter-connectedness, governments are ultimately doing a disservice to their own citizens; to those they seek to protect.
But then we encounter a problem: should a government give the same concern to the rest of the world as it does to its own citizens? Should Britain accept that vaccines manufactured on its territory be exported to other countries when its own citizens are not fully vaccinated and dying daily? Should the EU allow vaccine manufacturers to breach vaccine delivery contracts because they have to supply priority groups in other continents?
There is confusion, apprehension and anger over how vaccines are being purchased and distributed across the world.
Since mid-January, health workers in public hospitals in Kenya have downed their tools demanding protection of their health and that of their families. A number of health workers, young and old, have succumbed to the virus: the last widely reported one was a young doctor in his twenties. We are all scared because we are not sure who is next.
We are angry because our governments cannot protect us and our families by providing PPEs, let alone vaccines.
In December 2020, The Economist Intelligence Unit was predicting that low- and middle-income countries would not have “wide access to a vaccine” until the spring of 2022 at the earliest. A UK-based colleague told me that her 87-year-old father-in-law has already received his two vaccine doses. I was reminded that my grandfather in Siaya County, Kenya is of a similar age and unlikely to get the vaccine this year. I hope he will be alive by the time the vaccine reaches him.
High-income countries, most of which are facing a severe form of the pandemic, are fighting for a big share of the vaccines to save their citizens. In the process, they are succumbing to vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism, giving little thought to what is happening elsewhere in the world.
Countries like Kenya seem to have been rendered powerless in the scramble for the vaccines because they cannot flex their economic muscle like their more affluent counterparts.
As of 1st February, 101 million doses of the vaccine had been administered in 64 countries. Fewer than 200,000 of those doses had been administered on the African continent, and this in just three countries . If this pattern continues, the world risks a situation where sizeable numbers of citizens of some countries will have been vaccinated while the pandemic continues to ravage other communities.
Fragmented and preferential access to the COVID vaccine gives the impression that the value of human life is not the same across the world. What if we just stood in solidarity and took humanity to be one and faced our common enemy – COVID – as one world army of humans?
We would then vaccinate all health workers first because they are in the frontline of the battle. We would follow that by vaccinating older people, those with pre-existing health conditions, and essential service providers. Finally, we would vaccinate the rest of the world’s population. Geographical boundaries would not divide us; neither would our economic power.
We would win the battle by working together and at the end we would be proud of ourselves that we stood in solidarity and that we never allowed COVID to divide us.