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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Covid-19 vaccine is Africa’s moonshot

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The United Kingdom provided the global community a leap of faith when it rolled out the first mass vaccinations against Covid-19 in the western hemisphere. Amidst all the uncertainties, it was a remarkable achievement for humanity.

The United States, which has borne the brunt of the global case burden, has approved the Pfizer vaccine, and gone ahead to reserve doses for its population. With other vaccine development efforts faltering, there is going to be pressure on Pfizer to produce enough doses to meet global demand.

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That creates a natural pecking order. The bigger economic powers and countries with the bigger disease burden will take precedence.

There are countries in the world that simply cannot afford the vaccine and also lack the logistical infrastructure to efficiently rollout a vaccination campaign. Many of them are in Africa. Studies by international bodies show that only about a third of African countries could successfully rollout a Covid-19 vaccination campaign if the shots became available to them today.

Accounting for a fifth of the world population, Africa surprisingly has had the least number of Covid-19 cases for any region of the world. That makes it one of the places where early vaccination could yield the biggest dividends. In the world of cold calculations however, that again is what pushes it further down the merit order for delivery of the jabs.

Time should not be wasted lamenting Africa’s fate. Instead the interlude should be used to fix existing gaps. It is a rule of thumb that a vaccine will only offer protection if it covers the majority of the population. Experts talk of a need for at least two-thirds of the population to be inoculated for a vaccination programme to deliver demonstrable gains.

By inference, the modern world, interconnected as it is, will only be safe from Covid-19 if Africa and all regions receive the vaccine. That is what the campaign against polio has taught us. The vaccine will eventually get to Africa but we need to be ready. The national Covid-19 response in East Africa for the past nine months has so far painted a disappointing picture.

Poor accountability for resources, politicians assuming roles they are not qualified for and marginalising experts have all resulted in a lame-duck Covid-19 response so far. Even simple distribution of free masks has been a massive failure.

That should be a learning template for governments, the WHO and Africa Centres for Disease Control as they marshal African countries to join the Covax Facility to negotiate for the continent’s share of the vaccine. If there are any plans, governments in the region are yet to make them public.

Failure is not an option. Covid-19 is a disease with devastating economic impacts. Billions have slipped back into poverty and countries are knee-deep in debt. Vaccinations will reopen international trade and allow African economies to grow.

Vaccination should be treated as a moonshot. To run a cold chain that keeps the temperature of the vaccine at minus 70 degrees Celcius, requires a reliable energy supply, good roads to deliver doses to the remotest communities within a tight widow of opportunity and millions of trained health workers. Above all, it requires functioning and accountable political systems.

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