MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Africa’s response to vaccine nationalism gives the world a lesson in geopolitical rebooting

By Lyal White, Heinrich Volmink and Gabriele James 12 May 2021

(Image: Adobe Stock)

What nations choose to do with their Covid-19 vaccines has very real geopolitical consequences. Whether they share with others or provide life-saving vaccines to nations less fortunate than they are will have wide-reaching implications for the people and for international relations.

Professor Lyal White is the founder of the organisation Contextual Intelligence and Research Associate at the Brenthurst Foundation. Heinrich Volmink is a medical doctor and public health medicine specialist based in Johannesburg. Gabriele James is an independent researcher and lectures Business Ethics at the University of Cape Town.

Along with Latin America, Africa will be the region most severely impacted by Covid-19’s social and economic upheaval. Recovery will be slow and uneven across both regions, and levels of inequality and poverty have increased substantially through the pandemic. As two of the most unequal regions on the planet, a return to “normalcy” implies gross disparities, polarised politics and a society defined by “haves” and “have-nots”. These preconditions determine who advances socially, who is educated and, in times of a pandemic, who is vaccinated.

Is a return to a “new normal” the goal we should be striving for as we battle our way through this brutal pandemic? Or should we espouse a more profound “reboot”, one driven by greater solidarity championed through vaccine diplomacy, starting here, in Africa?

The pandemic has exposed global disparities with acute intensity. In a report “Learning from Covid-19”, released earlier this year, the response to Covid-19 across 23 countries was assessed and compared with some fascinating results. One of these debunked the assumption that policy takes precedence over politics in an emergency situation. Instead of galvanising societies around a common threat, the report found that the pandemic intensified pre-existing sociopolitical conditions. Those societies with some degree of solidarity before the pandemic enjoyed even greater unity, while those polarised societies before the pandemic grew even more divided, often dangerously so.

This has played out to devastating effect on the global stage and the scramble for vaccines. Despite the initial overtures made by political leaders with regards to solidarity in the fight against the pandemic, we have seen a surge of “vaccine nationalism” and a severely skewed distribution of resources and power in combating the virus and preparing for the future. The rhetorical combining of efforts seems to have given way to competing interests, undermining the lofty ambitions of universal immunity for bubbles of “Covid-free” zones.

According to Unicef’s Covid-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard, the majority of the 11.2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been secured by rich countries. The five countries with the highest number of doses secured per capita could, on average, cover 620% of their populations. Meanwhile, many poorer nations are yet to secure enough to be within striking distance of herd immunity thresholds in the near future. This is not simply governments failing to reach agreements early enough, but rather a reflection of prevailing global forces driving our world apart.

What nations choose to do with their vaccines has very real geopolitical consequences. Whether they share with others or provide life-saving vaccines to nations less fortunate than they are will have wide-reaching implications for the people and for international relations. Vaccine diplomacy is quickly emerging as the ultimate form of “soft” or “smart power” from China and Russia to the US and Germany.

Covid-19 is a single system threat — that system being the entire globe. But the response has been fragmented. Despite geopolitical consequences and so-called soft power gains, not to mention the devastating cost of the continued status quo on persistent vulnerability for all countries, the world will also have missed a crucial opportunity to develop the collective momentum needed to overcome looming existential threats we face globally, beyond the pandemic. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has articulated this best by stating “the pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation… a test we have essentially failed”.

Instead of striving for “normalcy”, should we not strive for a fundamentally better post-Covid-19 world? Such a world would be predicated on real supranational solidarity, paving a way for meaningful reforms in global governance.

What steps are needed to put us on an alternative trajectory?

Lessons from Africa provide a useful starting point. Contrary to the knee-jerk Afro-pessimism associated with public health responses and social delivery across the continent, there have been a number of positive developments in the coordinated continental approach adopted. Examples of this include the work of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the pandemic response, its contribution in developing the Covid-19 Vaccine Development and Access Strategy, and the efforts of the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team which was instrumental in securing a recent agreement involving 400 million Covid-19 vaccine doses for the continent.

In a report presented at the Schmidt Futures conference earlier this year, assessing the comparative Covid-19 response of five African countries — Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria — an important unit of analysis was established. These countries collectively represent nearly 50% of the continent’s population and over 50% of its gross domestic product. Such a grouping provides valuable lessons indicative of the African context, in a region facing the most daunting challenges in terms of vaccine access. Recommendations emerging from studies like this contribute directly toward improving global health governance for all, and especially poorer citizens in need of multilateral responses.

Such an exercise draws valuable lessons and crucial insights from both successes and failures in less developed and data-poor countries. These research and collaborative efforts help establish a starting point for a framework that will drive global governance reform.

Building global solidarity through Africa goes well beyond establishing a “new normal”. In so doing, the very continent that has been adversely impacted by the inequity of the global pandemic response can become key in the course correction that the world now urgently needs. DM

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