We must not allow Covid-19 to overrun Africa

In Summary
  • We are stuck with vaccines for the foreseeable future
  • Africa must therefore get its act together on vaccine rollout as well as make serious investments in its public health infrastructure

In his first press conference US President Joe Biden said, “July 4 with your loved ones is the goal”.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote “I’m also convinced that the second half of this year is going to be more fantastic than we can imagine right now.’

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is riding on a strong Covid-19 vaccine rollout, in contrast to a shambolic vaccine rollout in the European Union. In Israel, vaccination centres are winding down, infections are in decline and the country is reopening for business. Launched in March, Israel’s green pass has been credited with motivating Israelis to take the jab.

The so-called wealthy countries are eager to get back to business as usual, whatever that means in a world defined by an indomitable virus. Determined to stave off a virulent incursion by the South African variant, the UK has suspended direct flights from South Africa. Now Kenya, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines have joined the UK’s red list.

This move is not surprising. Any half-witted person might have predicted this at the zenith of vaccine scramble, when the west gobbled up vaccine pre-orders that would vaccinate their populations nearly three to five times over. The UK for example, ordered more than 367 million vaccine doses for a population of just 67 million people. Canada, with a population of about 37.6 million people ordered 362 million doses.

Countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are in the throes of a dangerous Covid-19 surge. A surge that is execrated by sloppy Covid-19 prevention measures, feeble testing and a moribund public health system. Africa’s death rate surpassed the global average for the first time in January. Somehow the deadly surge is energised by a half-hearted, imprecise and incompetent vaccine rollout plan. The African Union has ordered a paltry 270 million doses of vaccine for the continent’s 1.22 billion population.

Experts believe the coronavirus could be like influenza, which requires a new vaccine every year because the circulating strains mutate too fast and because immunity from the vaccine wears off quickly. Hence, we are stuck with vaccines for the foreseeable future. Africa must therefore get its act together on vaccine rollout as well as make serious investments in its public health infrastructure.

Advances in therapeutics, especially antiviral therapy, corticosteroids, blood-derived products like convalescent plasma and monoclonal antibodies have great promise to relieve severe illness and avert death. But the question is are African countries committed to making these therapies both accessible and affordable to the populations who need them the most.

Time is of the essence. It is a race against death, literally. We cannot afford to be overrun by Covid-19, especially when we know exactly what must be done to stem the ugly surge of morbidity and death through proven non-pharmaceutical interventions (use of masks, hygiene, social distancing), therapeutics and vaccines.

Combating Covid-19 must be the most important, social, health and economic policy goal for any African president. They owe it to posterity.