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While Africa blames others for vaccine nationalism, we must also examine our continent’s own failings

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Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

The pursuit of GDP growth masked many gaps in African economies for decades, and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how woefully ill-prepared African countries are to meet the needs of their people. In South Africa for example, the pandemic has exposed many problems, including access to water, food, health services and procurement processes.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s bombshell statement to the Davos summit on 26 January 2021 about vaccine hoarding by rich nations has been discussed and dissected from all angles in media houses around the world. Rich countries, with just 16% of the world’s population, have hoovered up 60% of the world’s vaccine supply, postponing inoculation programmes for the rest of the world by months, if not years.

Yet, while we must condemn rich nations for hoarding vaccines and paying scant attention to global solidarity, we must also take a hard look at ourselves and ask why we always have to depend on others for everything.

The other term Ramaphosa used to describe vaccine hoarding in his intervention – vaccine nationalism – has been trending since. Political talking heads in right-wing US media, when they bother to talk about Covid-19, have opined that “we can’t help everybody”. However, the consensus among medical experts is that President Ramaphosa’s warning must be heeded. Vaccine nationalism can tank the global economy for months or even years if a more coordinated approach to vaccination is not adopted.

The lesson we have learnt from HIV/Aids, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and the Ebola virus disease (EVD) and so on, is that in the highly interconnected world we live in, it is easy for a virus to get on a plane and in a matter of hours, infect hundreds of people in faraway countries.  For this reason, we cannot stop a pandemic by working in silos. It has to be a collective effort.

On Tuesday 2 February 2021, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said vaccine hoarding was counterproductive and in terms of stopping the virus, it wasn’t going to help.

Every day the Covid-19 virus is not brought under control, it gets stronger and continues to mutate into even more infectious variants that are resistant to treatment regimens that currently exist. The South African coronavirus site tells us that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) for example, has been confirmed as the causative agent of “coronavirus disease 2019” (Covid-19). The Covid-19 virus can survive in a country where people were not vaccinated, mutate into a virulent strain and then travel in somebody’s body back to Europe or America and wreak havoc, even among people who have been vaccinated for Covid-19.

Moderna has already announced that it will have to adjust its vaccine out of an abundance of caution to improve protection against new variants of the coronavirus, especially the South African one. After the South African, Brazilian, and English variants, we could potentially see an even deadlier variant pop up somewhere else.

So in terms of vaccination, we need strong global leadership and coordination. Speaking at a UN summit on Ebola on 25 September 2014, former US President Barack Obama cautioned the world that:

“In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic the likes of which we have not seen before. It is spiralling out of control, it is getting worse, it is spreading faster and exponentially. Today, thousands of people in West Africa are infected. That number could rapidly grow to tens of thousands. And if the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected, with profound political, economic and security implications for all of us. So this is an epidemic that is a threat not just to regional security, it is a potential threat to global security.”

It is regrettable that the world has not witnessed the kind of collaboration that was developed during the recent Ebola and Zika health crises. This was in large part due to former US President Donald Trump’s denialism-cum-amateurism, the rise of isolationism in the post-2008 recession context (US, England, Italy, eastern Europe) and the relative inexperience of the current President of the European Commission, Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen who, to all intents and purposes, has bungled the rollout of the EU vaccine programme.

With stronger global leadership, better solutions than bleach and hydroxychloroquine would have come up much sooner. The Africa CDC has put up an admirable fight with very few resources, but its director, Dr John N Nkengasong, agrees that vaccine programmes need money, time and proper logistics.

Which brings me to my next, and probably most important point: while we blame others for vaccine nationalism and hoarding, we must patiently and honestly take a long hard look at ourselves and ask a few questions. Cogito, ergo sum, right? We have to ask ourselves:

  • Where are the African vaccines?
  • Why must we always depend on others for everything?
  • Why do we have to pay the Serum Institute of India double for vaccines that we could have produced ourselves with the right infrastructure?
  • Have we done enough to control our own destiny?
  • Has Covid-19 convinced us to invest more money and resources in our healthcare systems? and
  • Has the coronavirus pandemic shown us the importance of building resilient economies?

Here’s the thing: the pursuit of GDP growth masked many gaps in African economies for decades and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how woefully ill-prepared African countries are to meet the needs of their people. In South Africa for example, the pandemic has exposed problems with access to water, food, health services, procurement processes, and so on.

Our reflective examination, if we are thorough, should lead to the conclusion that we do not really control our own destiny in any particular area. That has to change, and if that is the case, then we must embrace degrowth and work harder to create localised, self-sufficient economies. We must reorganise our societies and prioritise investments in health, education and general well-being. Every decision we make, be it in energy, agriculture, education and so on, must answer the question: does it make our communities stronger?

Covid-19 has shown for example how much more work the South African government needs to do with regard to the government-led universal health coverage insurance offering (the National Health Insurance, NHI). South Africa brought in medical doctors from Cuba to help fight the virus. Cuban doctors had already been working in South Africa for many years, especially in rural hospitals. Now, the South African economy is almost four times the size of Cuba’s. Why is Cuba recognised as a global leader in the area of health and why is such a small country playing such an outsized role on health matters around the world?

Well, the answer is simple: because Cuba made a conscious decision to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world right after the revolution. It decided to invest in its people. A lot of time and effort went into opening teaching centres, teaching hospitals and training a disproportionate number of doctors. It took Cuba decades of hard work operating in a degrowth paradigm to get where it is now.

It is this kind of conscious choice that African countries have to make now so as not to blame others when the next pandemic hits. Let us remember the famous lines spoken by Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.”

We can’t always blame others for our problems. Like Winston Churchill said, never let a good crisis go to waste. The time has come to go beyond just talking about African solutions to Africa’s problems and start acting as if we mean it. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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