By Abayomi Azikiwe
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the world, the African continent is seeking to halt the pandemic through the acquisition of vaccines and the implementation of other safety measures.
During the first and second phases of the pandemic in the countries of Europe, the United States, India, Brazil, among others, these nations suffered a rapid increase in infections subsequent deaths. African Union (AU) member-states initially were spared the astronomically high number of cases and mortalities. Yet, in recent weeks, the number of coronavirus cases in the region have accelerated.
South Africa and Morocco are cited as the two leading states in regard to positive tests and deaths. Both governments in these respective nations are addressing the crisis by an increase in testing and the securing of vaccines for mass distribution.
According to a statement issued by the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDC), an affiliate of the AU, there is cause for concern in regard to the progression of the spread of infections since the beginning of the year. The ACDC says:
“Africa is currently experiencing an increase in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. As of 27 January 2021, at least 40 countries have experienced a second wave of the pandemic, including all countries in the Southern Africa region. This new wave of infections is thought to be associated with the emergence of variants that are more transmissible. Preliminary findings show that three new similar but distinct Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variants, the 501Y/VUI – 202012/01, 501Y.V2, 501Y.V3, reported in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, respectively, are significantly more transmissible than previously circulating variants, with high viral shedding observed among cases. There is currently limited data on the extent to which these new variants have spread in Africa, but preliminary data show that the 501Y.V2 variant has been reported in 22 countries globally including South Africa, Ghana, Botswana and Zambia.”
This rapid rise in cases poses additional challenges for the AU member-states. Due to the historical legacies of enslavement, colonialism and neo-colonialism, the continent has been systematically underdeveloped for centuries. Even with the national independence of 54 states throughout Africa, the societies are still dependent to a large measure on the revenue generated by the export of commodities in the energy, agricultural and mineral sectors of the economies.
These problems of underdevelopment and dependency have impacted the growth and viability of the healthcare industry in regard to trained personnel, treatment centers and hospitals. Therefore, the situation thrusted upon the AU and its 1.3 billion people over the last year is further straining the capacity of the healthcare institutions to address the pandemic.
Several leaders have spoken out against what they perceive as the disregard for the well-being of peoples within the Africa region along with others in lesser developed states. Current AU Chairperson, Republic of South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, has charged the western imperialist states with “vaccine nationalism”, meaning that these industrialized governments are purchasing the bulk of vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE) leaving the majority of the world’s population living in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America, notwithstanding the poor and oppressed within the so-called advanced capitalist states, to their own devices as it related to dealing with the pandemic.
Vaccine Distributions Already Underway in Several African States
The North African Kingdom of Morocco has instituted a vaccination program in response to the spike in coronavirus cases inside the country. In addition, two other states in the North Africa region are inoculating their citizens, Algeria and Egypt.
Seychelles, an Indian Ocean nation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has received doses of the vaccine as well. All of these countries are receiving their vaccines from China through Sinopharm. Although the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the only one as of late January to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), the importation of this particular product would be challenging as a result of the requirements for the storing at -70 Celsius.
On February 1, vaccines arrived in South Africa from India’s Serum Institute. The event was covered extensively by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) as a newsworthy item providing hope to the country of 60 million where the number of cases rose during December and early January. Several high-level government officials have been stricken by the coronavirus which took the life of cabinet minister and African National Congress (ANC) ruling party stalwart Jackson Mthembu.
The vaccine imported to South Africa, known as Covishield, was developed by the University of Oxford in Britain by the AstraZeneca firm. There will be no cost for the vaccine which will be covered by employers and the ANC government.
President Ramaphosa says that the distribution and administering of Covishield will be the most complex and challenging logistical undertakings in the history of South Africa. The government considers the acquisition of the vaccines as a pivotal point in its efforts to arrest the pandemic. Since the advent of coronavirus during the early months of 2020, its impact on the economy, the most industrialized on the continent, has been severe by aggravating existing problems of joblessness and poverty.
Much attention has been paid to the COVID-19 variant in South Africa, B.1.351 as to the level of effectiveness the existing vaccines would have in halting the spread of the infections. This variant, along with others discovered in Britain and Brazil, are said to be more easily transmissible. A Johnson & Johnson trial of its vaccine, known as Novavax, in South Africa, produced an effectiveness rate of 57% in comparison to 72% in the U.S. and 66% in Latin America.
The East African state of Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni, announced on February 2 that the government was reopening schools which have been closed since March. Simultaneously, Uganda revealed that it was acquiring over three million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Covishield, from the same Serum Institute of India which is supplying South Africa.
AU Continues to Secure Vaccine Supplies
WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing from Geneva, Switzerland on January 29 that the large-scale purchases of anti-coronavirus vaccines by western industrialized countries to the exclusion of others would not protect their residents from the pandemic. There must be a comprehensive international approach to the global public health crisis.
Dr. Tedros, who is originally from the Horn of Africa state of Ethiopia, has spoken out consistently on the need for cooperation between geo-political regions in battling the virus. The former U.S. administration of President Donald J. Trump broke relations with the WHO during 2020, falsely accusing the agency of concealing the spread of the pandemic and aligning itself with the Chinese government. Since taking office on January 20, Democratic President Joe Biden has rejoined the WHO and members of the current Coronavirus Task Force are collaborating with the global body, which is affiliated with the United Nations.
An article published in the Zimbabwe Sunday Mail on January 31, says of the continental response that:
“The African Union Special Envoy on the Covid-19 crisis, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa, says Africa will get more than one billion doses of vaccines by year-end. In May 2020, the African Union appointed Masiyiwa as a special envoy to rally the private sector to provide solutions to Covid-19, while helping the continent to source personal protective equipment (PPE) and other material to combat the pandemic. Speaking recently, Mr. Masiyiwa said international donors had already pledged 700 million free doses this year under the global finance initiative, Covax.”
These efforts by the AU member-states are commendable under the challenging economic and social crisis facing the continent as a result of the pandemic. Solutions to the resolution of these public health problems require the mobilization of the world population to demand equal access to the available medical treatments and vaccines.