Africa: Covid-19 Vaccine Imperialism And Other Challenges

President Magufuli

Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli. Covid? What covid? Photo: Facebook 

Covid-19 Hegemony: African countries are not looking to their home-grown manufacturing capacity and solutions to fight the pandemic. The donor-and-dependency syndrome is back. African countries are all looking to the US, UK, European Union, China, Russia, and India for vaccines. These major and emerging powers are embroiled in a fierce race to supply vaccines and healthcare equipment to Africa, in the process raking in billions of dollars, and political influence for themselves. 

Land, minerals, crops, and a whole range of products are being syphoned for a song by the powerful countries. The pandemic has yet again provided big pharma and the major powers a new fertile ground to extend their power and influence. African countries need to take practical steps to invest in research for drug development and manufacture as well as the development of their own capacity to create the necessary instruments for the manufacturing of vaccines, diagnostics, medicines, and other essential equipment to guarantee the survival of their population. Most universities and research institutions here in Africa can produce ventilators, masks, testing equipment and drugs, but there is no political will and support to reduce dependence on other countries.

Vaccination Rollouts: As national vaccination programs for Covid-19 in Africa gather pace in the midst of a global rush, there is a whole lot of potential threats to the uptake of the drugs on this continent of more than 1.3 billion people. Many African countries are taking bold steps to acquire vaccines and ensure that they save lives and treat the most vulnerable. The continent has more than 3.83 million confirmed cases and deaths are now more than 101, 350 mark in the coming few days.

A number of countries including Guinea, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and several others are now moving to roll out vaccination programs. The continent is driving to have at least 60% of its 1.3 billion people vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to achieve continent-wide herd immunity.

On February 14, Rwanda kicked off the national vaccination program for Covid-19, starting with health care staff as part of the high-risk groups. The country was rolling out the vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) which were acquired through international partnerships. Health officials in that country say the national vaccination program will be done in phases, with the first one targeting to go to frontline workers in healthcare including but not limited to those working in treatment centers and Intensive Care Units (ICUs). 

In addition, this phase will also be rolled out to people older than 65 and those whose immunity is weak and have underlying conditions such as cancer, diabetes, HIV and other serious diseases. Furthermore, other vulnerable groups such as correctional facility inmates, people in refugee and security personnel  – at risk of the virus will be considered.

Vaccine Access: Most African countries are likely to follow the WHO guidelines for rolling out the vaccines just as Rwanda is doing. Recently, Zimbabwe received a donation of 200, 000 doses of vaccines from China which will be rolled out first to frontline healthcare workers, vulnerable groups, and others in accordance with WHO guidelines. China will supply a further 600, 000 doses bought by the government which are expected to arrive next month. In addition, Zimbabwe has been promised supplies from Russia, India and the U.K. together with its share of the facilities arranged by the WHO and the African Union (AU). The Government has already mobilized $100 million to buy vaccines. 

The global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has placed an unprecedented strain on public health systems and decimated economies, lives, and livelihoods.

The crisis will be keenly felt by the majority of the poor who live on hand-to-mouth, those who are unemployed, and have insufficient social security cover. Without robust oversight and due diligence, the poor will not access the vaccines easily. NGOs and UN agencies need to play an active role to ensure equity in the rolling out of vaccines. Corrupt and repressive governments may use vaccines as a potent tool to oppress and crush opponents. This could have a devastating impact exacerbating the spread of the pandemic. Equity is key here and the success or failure of vaccine roll out programs will depend on addressing the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

Corruption: Apart from the obvious burden placed on healthcare systems, other sectors that are affected by the crises in Africa include the education and public procurement systems. The rapid emergency purchase of vaccines, healthcare equipment, sanitization chemicals, educational equipment, IT equipment and other requirements to address the pandemic, has exposed vulnerabilities in procurement systems that were already prone to fraud and corruption. 

Many countries have reported corruption costing billions of dollars. The distribution of cash grants and food aid to the poor has been wrought with irregularities. All this is due to the corruption and weak procurement systems that do not promote transparency, accountability and sound governance in many African countries. Vaccines are a huge cash cow and with weak medical controls, fraud and counterfeits will dent the vaccine rollout programs. 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have mobilized $57 billion to assist Africa to manage the pandemic, with another $$13 billion expected from private creditors. Nigeria is striving to raise one trillion naira (about $2.6 billion) to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and the country is a recent recipient of a $3.4 billion IMF rapid relief loan. South Africa unveiled a R500 billion (approximately $$23 billion) economic stimulus and social support package for the country. These dollars present a huge honey pot for corruption if not well managed.

Vaccine Hesitancy: Vaccine hesitancy is a huge challenge for Africa. There is controversy between vaccine acceptance and refusal. A growing number of people in Africa are delaying or refusing recommended vaccines for themselves or their children, even when safe and effective vaccines are available due to social and cultural factors. 

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has attracted global attention for his stance on the vaccination issue. He has repeatedly warned his people and other African countries against rushing into embracing the Covid-19 vaccines promoted by foreign companies and countries. He has cast doubt on the global urge to develop Covid-19 vaccine claiming that little has been done to cure diseases like tuberculosis, HIV-Aids, malaria among other infections. “You should stand firm. Vaccinations are dangerous. If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, he should have found a vaccination for Aids by now; he would have found a vaccination of tuberculosis by now; he would have found a vaccination for malaria by now; he would have found a vaccination for cancer by now,” Magufuli said. Tanzania has sung this song alone. Only recently has Magufuli acknowledged that face masks may save lives following the death Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice president of Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, through Covid. Magufuli had been under increasing international pressure to change his position in the wake of rising deaths in Tanzania. 

In Zimbabwe and most other African countries, there are some communities who are strongly opposed to vaccinations of any type. Rolling out vaccinations to these communities is going to be an uphill battle. 

The growing use of herbal medicines due to the coronavirus second wave that is threatening to overwhelm fragile healthcare systems across Africa has led to an upsurge in the use of herbal medicines, raising major concerns on adverse reactions and challenges in monitoring their safety. Faced with rising deaths, there is a new herbal craze and frenzied demand for traditional herbs such as Umsuzwane-Zumbani and a whole range of concoctions that use a mixture of guava, mopane leaves, gumtree leaves, ginger, garlic, onions, and lemons, in Zimbabwe. 

Steaming is also being practiced widely in Zimbabwe and most other African countries. Some say its effective while others say it’s not. Toxicologists say there are numerous risks related to some herbal and traditional medicines as they are not well-researched, are poorly regulated, and may contain adulterated products that may produce adverse effects. Vaccine hesitancy will be a huge factor in the success or failure of the vaccine programs in Africa.

Elephant in Room: Eminent Zimbabwe politician, scientist, and scholar Professor Arthur Mutambara wondered how “an entire African continent fails to produce a single Covid-19 vaccine.” He accuses Big Pharma, Western governments and WHO of failing to promote basic and inexpensive solutions. Prof. Mutambara blames Big Pharma for its rigorous push into complicated patent remedies to make profit through disease management and not eradication. “Big Pharma is a commercial enterprise and not a wellness driven enterprise. As an illustration, let us assume that the answer to Covid-19 was just steaming and nothing else. If all scientific research the world over was to prove that this is the answer – just steaming; do you think big Pharma will promote the steaming method as a medical remedy to Covid? How much money will they make out of the steaming solution? Zilch!,” he wrote in an article recently. “Then there is vaccine nationalism where rich nations are now competing instead of cooperating among themselves, and they are also not working with the poor nations. These developed nations are currently hoarding the vaccines to the extent that some are planning to have four times what their populations need. Yet, the developing countries have no access or limited access to vaccines.”

This global pandemic is a global problem that requires a global solution. Many agree that the pandemic will only be defeated if the virus is eradicated globally. Africa needs to support its own research and development institutions with adequate funding and political will to come up with home grown solutions that are cheaper and accessible to the majority of the people. 

For now, as Prof. Mutambara rightly puts it: “The African is an observer—a subject and not a participant in vaccine development. This is a terrible indictment of all of us people of African descent. Shame on us!”

Sifelani Tsiko is a veteran journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. [email protected]

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