No other pandemic has unveiled the flaws in the global health system like what COVID-19 has done.No other pandemic has unveiled the flaws in the global health system like what COVID-19 has done. When the Coronavirus broke out in 2019, a chart was released by the Global Health Security Index to show the capacity of then 195 countries, to handle any outbreak of infectious disease. The United States ranked first, the second was the United Kingdom. South Korea and China came in 9th and 51st respectively. African countries ranked in places at the bottom of the list. This list was put together by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (US) in conjunction with the John Hopkins School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security.
Turns out indices do not always portray, with 100 per cent certainty, what happens when a pandemic hits. What we see now speaks to an entirely different truth. The two top-ranking countries have had among the world’s worst responses to the pandemic, all as a result of blatant lies, garbling, incompetence and unforgivable delays.
The World Health Organization had resoundingly recommended widespread testing, treatment and vigorous contact tracing (WHO, Geneva 2020) as a way of curbing the pandemic fast. Neither country had their health personnel fully equipped with PPEs. Also, the unrelenting onslaught of new COVID-19 cases soon rendered available bed space in health facilities insufficient. Sanctions imposed by the US and UK on certain countries also meant that those countries could not respond effectively to the pandemic because they could access neither aid nor medical supplies.
Africa, despite having ranked deplorably in the list, has not been doing too badly since the pandemic hit. True, with the nature of COVID-19 and the different waves the world has been experiencing, it may be too soon to speak but measures taken by African countries have yielded laudable results. Proactive screening, simpler triage strategies and celebrity campaigns to create awareness on best practices are just some of the innovative methods African countries adopted to curb the spread of COVID-19.
In light of all this, coupled with the fact that the first world is giving boosters when most of the world still lags, it is time to have the vaccine inequity discussion. Africa accounts for 17 per cent of the global population yet of the 9 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines produced, she has only received 540 million. Only approximately 10 per cent of the African population has been vaccinated.
Vaccine inequity in Africa
One thing is evident; if the current trend continues, a staggering number of Africans will still be unvaccinated by 2023. In Africa, and indeed the world over, COVID-19 has, quite fortunately, exposed the critical gap in vaccine manufacturing. This vulnerability hinders the availability of and access to vital medication and vaccines on the continent.
Africa is not the epicentre of the current pandemic that has sent the world reeling but with vaccine inequality taking its toll, she may very well soon be. Vaccine inequality is not only morally and epidemiologically wrong, it leaves room for vaccine ineffectiveness and paves way for the entry of more hardened mutations of COVID-19.
WHO had set a target of full vaccination of 40 per cent of the population in all countries by the end of last year but most African countries missed this target. Seychelles, Mauritius, Morocco, Tunisia, Cape Verde, Botswana and Rwanda met the target. WHO has since set a new target of 70 per cent by June 2022 and it is likely that a lot of countries in Africa still won’t meet this deadline.
The vaccine inequity question ceased to be a supply issue a long time ago. The supply is sufficient, it is the timely equal distribution and efficient delivery of the vaccines that is a bigger problem now. Most vaccines are delivered to African countries via COVAX at very short notice and with a very short shelf life.
In a press release published by UNICEF in October last year, G20 countries received 15 times more vaccine doses than countries in Sub Saharan Africa, according to analytics company Airfinity. Speaking on the matter, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said, “Vaccine inequity is not just holding the poorest countries back – it is holding the world back. As leaders meet to set priorities for the next phase of the COVID-19 response, they must remember that, in the COVID vaccine race, we either win together, or we lose together.”
A morality solidarity test
The Omicron variant surge is now officially the shortest-lived in Africa to date. After ravaging the continent for 6 weeks it finally plateaued in January this year save for the rising cases in the North Africa region. While the new variant Omicron has been no more destabilizing than its predecessors Delta and Beta, experts worry that the next variant may not be so forgiving in the continent. A larger population of Africa must be vaccinated to anticipate any future evolution patterns of COVID 19.
Africa, despite obvious challenges in funding, healthcare personnel, cold chain logistical issues and vaccine hesitancy has been tackling the pandemic way better than was expected she would at the onset. If vaccine inequity was no longer an issue, Africa’s population would be much better protected and prepared for any future mutations. South Africa announcing the ability to reproduce the Moderna vaccine early this month was a huge milestone in Africa’s vaccine journey. With patents no longer a preserve of a few nations, the continent is forever changing the vaccine narrative.
For years, global health systems have been almost entirely dependent on capacity building from the western world. The pandemic has however shown that the delayed and largely sclerotic response from these countries is a warning that we are one outbreak away from the system collapsing completely.
For the benefit of future generations globally, the conversations at the health systems table must quickly morph into actionable resolutions about democratic, equitable and better-networked solutions in the global health stage. Legacies of power and wealth have not come out victorious in the fight against the pandemic and so ‘charity’ cannot be the answer especially not for Africa. No single outbreak has presented the world with a tougher moral solidarity challenge than this pandemic; as long as any stakeholder is left out of the conversation, COVID 19 is here to stay.
Photo courtesy: un.org