COVID-19 VACCINE

Why Africa must learn to rely on itself in handling pandemics

Africa needs to ramp up its own capacity to develop, test and roll out vaccines

In Summary

• Africa needs to ramp up its own capacity to develop, test and roll out vaccines, not just for the present pandemic, but for future ones as well.

• And here, its own traditional medical knowledge can be a great asset.

As distribution of Covid-19 vaccines begins in the Western world, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that African countries will not get it before 2022 with some having to wait till 2023.

Meanwhile, rich countries are hovering up production for the years between then. Canada, for example, has committed to freely provide the vaccine to every Canadian who wants it — and has even offered to donate excess supply to impoverished countries.

But the experience of the last year and beyond should make Africa cautious about relying on Western charity. If there is one thing the pandemic and other global emergencies have shown, it is that when it comes to self-preservation, each nation is on its own. Whether it is the so-called migrant crisis, climate change or epidemic disease, countries will put the interests of their citizens, companies and rulers first, even if it means all of us lose out in the long run.

This has even been evident on the continent itself where, disregarding the advice of the World Health Organization as well as global health experts, many countries resorted to imposing travel restrictions that did little to halt the spread of the virus but were immensely disruptive for economies.

At the global level, the restrictions did not spare poorer countries that, from a combination of deliberate policy action and circumstance, have not been as badly affected as their wealthier counterparts.

Africa may have escaped the public health consequences the pandemic has wreaked in the West, but it has not been spared the economic devastation. And it is unlikely to fully recover unless the vaccine becomes widespread. It is not difficult to imagine African countries and their citizens being locked out of global travel and tourism markets for the next two years until that happens, which would cause immense hardship.

Several times, including during this pandemic, countries on the continent have demonstrated that they have the experience, know-how and personnel to deal with the challenges of isolating and containing infectious disease. The responses may have left a lot to be desired, especially in their brutality as well as lack of attention to the consent and rights of citizens, and may have been aided by the demographic profile of the population, the youngest and least urbanized in the world. But they did seem nonetheless to be effective.

However, in the development of reagents, therapeutics and vaccines, Africa is still dependent on the expertise of others and continues to neglect its own potential for homegrown remedies. In Kenya, for example, until recently, the National Emergency Response Committee, which is overseeing the Covid response, had not even been tasked with looking into vaccines, being solely mandated to look into containment measures.

Right now, the country is involved in the global human testing of vaccines developed in other countries and, together with other developing nations, seems to have placed its hopes on the goodwill of developed nations to ensure access for their poorer neighbours.

Yet, despite the nice promises made under initiatives like COVAX, a global collaboration to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to vaccines, by some measures developed countries have already signed agreements with drug manufacturers to guarantee themselves 85 per cent of total bilateral pre-orders of vaccines.

Clearly, the lesson here is that during pandemics, commitments to global equity should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.

Africa needs to ramp up its own capacity to develop, test and roll out vaccines, not just for the present pandemic, but for future ones as well. And here, its own traditional medical knowledge can be a great asset.

Rather than queuing up for the latest offering from the West (or from the East) and hoping there is still some left when we get to the front of the line, Africa should put at least some of its eggs in its own basket and invest in local knowledge and capacity.