“I have had my first vaccine yesterday,” texted Mabvuto. “But today I feel bad. Is that okay my friend?”
I was happy to reassure him that the AstraZeneca jab can have side-effects. “I spent 36 hours in bed following my first one,” I messaged back. “Take some Panado [paracetamol], drink lots of water and rest for a day. You will be fine.”
And of course he was. The headache and general malaise wore off after a day and he was back to his usual ebullient self. But Mabvuto is one of the lucky ones. He lives in a township on the edge of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, so was able to access the Covid vaccine when the country’s latest supply from Covax – the global vaccine programme – became available. Millions of his fellow Malawians are not so fortunate.
As the UK gears up to vaccinate everyone over 50 years old for a third time, most Africans have not yet had their first jab. The international community had set a target of vaccinating 40 per cent of the continent’s population by the end of the year, but Covax has just announced that it has been forced to cut its delivery to Africa by around 150 million doses, and has only enough to protect 17 per cent of people this year. At the latest count, 82 per cent of Britons over 16 had been vaccinated.
The World Health Organisation’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, puts the blame for vaccine inequality firmly at the door of rich countries. Speaking earlier this week, she said “export bans and vaccine hoarding have a chokehold on vaccine supplies to Africa”.
“As long as rich countries lock Covax out of the market, Africa will miss its vaccination goals. The huge gap in vaccine equity is not closing anywhere near fast enough. It is time for vaccine manufacturing countries to open the gates and help protect those facing the greatest risk,” she added.
And there’s another problem, as former PM and newly appointed WHO ambassador, Gordon Brown, pointed out this week. A study by Airfinity shows that there are 100 million doses of vaccine nearing their ‘use-by’ date. These will be destroyed if there is not an urgent plan to distribute them to countries that need them. Brown could barely contain his anger at the prospect of the vaccines being dumped.
“It is unthinkable and unconscionable that 100 million vaccines will have to be thrown away from the stockpiles of the rich countries while the populations of the world’s poorest countries will pay for our vaccine waste in lives lost,” he raged.
The leader of the world’s richest country, President Joe Biden, showed some contrition on Wednesday at a White House summit when he promised an additional 500 million doses for low and middle-income countries. But delivery of this batch will not start rolling out until January 2022 at the earliest, and global health experts dismissed Biden’s promise as “insufficient”.
“We will need six to nine billion doses of vaccines to inoculate the developing world,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National Tropical School of Medicine at Baylor University in Texas, told Reuters.
It’s not just a shortage of Covid vaccines that is hurting Africa. The pandemic has damaged the economy of many countries, perhaps irreparably.
While the UK government could pour money into the system for furlough payments, business grants and to buy vaccines, countries such as Malawi found their fragile economies shattered by the economic shock of Covid.
Foreign investment has dried up, international aid has faltered and tourism has come to a full stop. Before the pandemic hit, Africa had the second-fastest growing tourism sector in the world, contributing 8.5 per cent of GDP and employing 24 million people.
People like Mabvuto, a driver and a guide, who has seen his income plummet in the last 18 months. He has to fall back on traditional ways of earning hard cash, such as growing maize, and his dream of growing his taxi business has been put on hold, perhaps forever.
“It is hard,” he says, with a virtual shrug. He knows he is powerless in the face of the virus, and worse, he is a victim of the global economic apartheid that has left much of Africa isolated.
Many of the countries on Britain’s red list for travel are in sub-Saharan Africa, including Malawi. And the longer it takes to give these countries sufficient supplies of vaccine, the longer they will remain out of bounds, cut off from the rest of the world.
Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned earlier this year of “a two-track pandemic… leading to a two-track recovery”. She added: “Africa is already falling behind in terms of growth prospects. It is a human tragedy and an economic calamity.”
But it didn’t have to be like this. Low and middle-income countries should have been allowed to manufacture the Covid vaccine patent-free, so increasing supply and making distribution easier. The pandemic is, hopefully, a once-in-a-century occurrence. The usual rules should not apply.
Rich countries could have held off giving a third vaccine to much of their populations until next year, so ensuring that the world’s most vulnerable people got their first jab before the end of 2021.
Covid has shown how our world is intimately connected. The virus emerged out of a province in central China and the dominant variant, Delta, mutated on the streets of India. By selfishly ignoring the plight of the world’s poorest countries, we are putting our world at risk.