Coronavirus Vaccine Racism: A time to look eastwards? – Magnus Onyibe

To get the over 200 million people in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, vaccinated against COVID-19 on time, President Muhammadu Buhari mandated the Presidential Task Force (PTF) headed by Boss Mustafa, Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF) may have to look eastwards towards China and Russia for the badly needed vaccines to spare Nigerians further loss of lives to the vicious coronavirus pandemic.

The above proposition is underscored by the attitude of the winner takes it all being exhibited by the rich and advanced western societies such as the USA and UK in whose countries the vaccines – Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca – were developed and now being monopolised to the exclusion of Africa.

Without a single dose of the two Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines developed, tested and approved in the USA since November 2020 and the Oxford/AstraZeneca, subsequently approved in the UK arriving on African soil about two months post-approval for human use, the usual pattern of oppression of the poor by the wealthy nations has once again become manifest. This is reminiscent of the unfair trade practices against Africans which has contributed in no small measure in stymieing the much desired growth and prosperity of the estimated 1.3 billion inhabitants spread out in some 54 countries that make up the continent. Little wonder that, unlike the other continents, Africa has remained a dark continent that is blighted by diseases, civil strife and war as trademark.

Meanwhile, Oxfam, the UK-based philanthropic coalition of organisations with focus on eradicating injustices that cause poverty, just released data indicating that the wealth of billionaires during COVID-19 pandemic increased by $3.9 billion beginning from March 2020 to end of the year, while the number of poor people increased by about 500,000 in the same period. It is a no brainer to figure out that the billionaires that got richer are in the industrialised western society (eight of them in the USA and one each in France and China), while those that got poorer are in the so-called third world countries that are preponderant in the continent of Africa.

The irony of it all is that, while more people died in the western world such as the USA where liberties like freedom is highly cherished hence they resisted lockdown, mask wearing and other protocols; in Africa or third world countries like Nigeria where lockdown was enforced during the first wave simply because they take life more preciously, fewer people died.

By similar logic, while the economy in Nigeria went belly up as a result of the strict compliance with coronavirus mandates such as economic lockdown, the USA economy is not in a recession, perhaps because it was never in a total lockdown and it has enough financial buffer to reflate the economy.

As evidence of the inequity of the ongoing vaccine distribution, the USA for instance, has distributed at least 41 million vaccines within the country to her citizens, although just about two per cent of the population has been inoculated.

In fact, it was reported that some of the vaccines had gone bad and therefore trashed because hospitals were strictly complying with the rule of vaccinating only medical personnel before extending it to the next level as directed by the authorities at the initial stages of the rollout.

Can you imagine the vaccine being wasted while we are in dire need of it in Africa? It reminds me of how the western world – USA, Europe and Japan – used to dump millions of eggs and chickens into the sea to prevent food glut because those countries subsidised farming, while Africans – especially those in the Horn of Africa – are dying of hunger and starvation. 

Hypocritically, these same countries would turn around to lecture Africans – through the Breton Woods institutions (World Bank, lMF, WTO) on why subsidy is bad for their economies.

Now, compare the 41 million COVID-19 vaccines so far distributed in the USA to the zero distribution in Africa, and tell me why African leaders should not be thinking of searching eastwards to China and Russia for help?

A similar scenario obtains in Europe where another COVID-19 vaccine has been produced by Oxford/AstraZeneca in the UK and it is being distributed and used in Europe while still not being distributed to Africa where it was touted as being the most suitable because unlike the American ones, it requires the normal fridge temperature for safe storage.

While one is raising eyebrows about the negligence of Africa by the wealthy countries in the coronavirus vaccine distribution, I’m not unmindful of the fact that although the USA, whose population represents only four per cent of the world’s population, is suffering a horrifying 25% of the number of deaths recorded worldwide.

So, with the USA recording a whopping 419,000 deaths of a global tally of a little over 2,000,000 deaths, the USA may be justified to have or feel entitled to the large number of vaccines that it has appropriated, while Africa has received none. And the same case can be made for the UK, which according to Johns Hopkins University data is the fifth in the hierarchy of the countries that have recorded the heaviest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

But what accounts for the fact that other countries in the western hemisphere such as Sweden, Norway and Israel as well as the UAE in the Middle East with far less population and number of deaths compared to most countries in Africa, have received the vaccines while countries such as Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa for instance, have received none? Worse still, South African citizens even participated in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial exercise, yet they have been left in the lurch after the vaccine received approval for use.

Readers that are in doubt about the veracity of the unfortunate condition of Africa being excluded from the exclusive club of countries that have received or rolled out COVID vaccines made in the USA or UK, can do a quick fact check by visiting the website of Our World In Data – a global research organisation as at 22/1/2021.

While the USA and Europe are neglecting, if not oppressing Africa in what appears like vaccine racism, China and Russia have been somehow generous by sharing their vaccines with Africans.

Currently, the Seychelles and Morocco are administering the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine. While Egypt has received a small batch of the Chinese vaccine, it is yet to roll it out. But Guinea is already using the Russian Sputnik V to inoculate her people.

This is not the first time that vaccine racism is happening.

In Tuskegee, Alabama, USA in 1932, black men were reported to have been used by US Public Health Services as guinea pigs to test a syphilis vaccine without their consent. Of course, it resulted in the tragic death of hapless black men. The travesty was not discovered until 1972 – some 30 years after lots of the victims had died from the disease that they were deliberately infected with, without their consent. How cruel?

That’s not all.

Recently, Africa was also given the cold shoulder by the west during the outbreak of HlV/AIDS which is believed to have originated in the continent about 30 years ago.

Given the unsavoury experiences highlighted above, I recommend that we all ignore the political soundbites by Nigeria’s minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire and other members of the health sector apparatchiks that boasted that Nigeria would receive the batch of vaccines at the end of this January, which is clearly a mission impossible, or even wishful thinking.

My advice is underscored by the fact that it is now barely one week before the end of January, and the prospect of the vaccine being received at the projected date in Nigeria is not in any form or shape likely to come into fruition.

According to a report by BBC’s Anne Soy, the World Health Organisation, (WHO) Director General, Tadros Ghebreyesus, is concerned about the undemocratic distribution of the vaccines that has left Africa in the cold.

He reportedly summed up his concern this way:

“The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure and the price will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the poorest countries.”

Similarly, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria in October had also spoken in solidarity with the world’s poor countries for a people’s vaccine anchored on the cardinal principle of democracy which is government of the people, for the people and by the people.

According to him,

“Learning from the painful lessons from a history of unequal access in dealing with diseases such as HIV, we must heed the warning that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, He continued by stating that “Only a People’s Vaccine with equality and solidarity at its core can protect all of humanity and get our societies safely running again. A bold international agreement cannot wait”.

Although, of the over 100 million infections worldwide, the number of those infected in Africa has been about 3.5 million, with a little less than a total of 80,000 deaths. Nevertheless, COVID-19 pandemic has had severe economic impact that has put the continent in dire straits.

The recent uptick in Nigeria is mainly as a result of the fact that the authorities choose not to lockdown the country during this second wave of COVID-19 because of the fragility of the economy. That’s unlike what currently obtains in the industrialised Western economies where they have the financial muscle or buffers to mitigate economic shocks arising from interruptions in production processes and therefore are on partial lockdown or about to go into full lockdown. Perhaps, owing to the fact that the effect of Coronavirus has been less destructive in Nigeria compared to the advanced society, the leaders decided to be more pragmatic by being swayed in favor of sustenance of livelihood over lives. And a similar approach was adopted in Egypt as it also did not lockdown.

While Egypt is hopeful of rolling out vaccines on Saturday 24th (I’m not holding my breath even though the Egyptian pharmaceutical authority has approved and obtained some of the Chinese vaccines since December) Nigerian authorities are now projecting receiving the first batch of the ones produced in the Western world between end of February to early March. The plan based on projections by WHO/GAVI-led COVAX, Vaccine Alliance/Coalition seems to be more realistic in my estimation. Right now, it is not known publicly whether Nigeria is negotiating with the Chinese or even the Russians for their version of Covid-19 vaccine.

However, I recently read a report in Nigerian media space indicating that government is planning on spending N10 billion to locally produce coronavirus vaccine.

I’m at a loss as to how government intends to do that as I’m yet to read or hear from any reliable source that Pfizer, Moderna and even Oxford/AstraZeneca have franchised the production of their vaccines to third parties. During a recent live online Harvard Business Review (HBR) event on LinkedIn platform with Dr Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease management expert in the USA, l posed the question about licensing a third party firm to produce the vaccines offshore USA, and didn’t receive an affirmative response.

Although any death is very tragic and traumatic to the family of the victim, when compared to other climes with similar population, Nigeria is lucky that the fatalities have been moderate at a little over 1,500 lives lost so far. That is roughly 0.7 % per 1000.

In South Africa, it is at a high ratio of 64.2% per 1000 with 37,104 people dead as at 21/1/2021.

Egypt that had recorded about 8, 583 is at 8.7% per 1000.

With nearly 80,000 people as the total number of Covid-19 deaths in Africa as at 18/1/2021, the continent can’t be said not to have been badly hit by the coronavirus plague. So why is Africa being once again being relegated to the bottom or neglected in the race to save mankind from COVID-19 scourge?

I recognize that when it comes to the brass tacks (when push comes to a shove as we say it colloquially) life is about the survival of the fittest.

But l was of the belief that the essence of the existence of the United Nations, UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO) the world would have a semblance of a level playing field where the poor would not be left behind by the wealthy.

Although such selfless traits were exhibited through the millennium development goals set by the UN, but with COVID-19 pandemic, it appears as if the wealthy countries are exhibiting the attitude of “To Your Tenths O Israel”. According to biblical accounts in l kings 12:16, the mantra “to your tents o Israel” was the reality that the Israelites faced when the king of Egypt would not listen to their plea for help.

They were literarily sent home to fend for themselves with the option of each family fashioning out their own safety measures.

With respect to Covid-19 vaccine, the world seems to be in a similar place or situation now with the poor countries needing help from the wealthy ones and being told that they are on their own.

That’s despite the efforts of (WHO) via Vaccine Alliance driven by GAVI Foundation to democratize the distribution of vaccine. Given the much vaunted aids to Africa by the rich which Damisa Moyo trashed in her book Dead Aid. Why Aid Is Not Working And How There Is Another Way For Africa, l can’t say I’m surprised that the leaders of the world dominated by the industrialized or so-called advanced societies dont seem to be ready to be large hearted towards Africa yet.  In their reckoning Africa should only be remembered when the wealthy have some crumbs to throw away.  Apparently, they have the memory of the ant by forgetting so soon about the dire consequences of neglecting Africa in the fight against HIV/AIDS, as opposed to having a large brain storage capacity of the type possessed by an elephant that is reputed not to easily forget.

Once more, their insensitivity to the plight of Africans may catch up with them again when COVID-19 pandemic circulates back to Europe and Americas in a vicious circle, if they fail to help eliminate it in Africa.

How can one phantom the apparent repeat of the unfortunate incident of the Western world neglecting Africa in the fight against HIV/AIDS about three decades ago and the consequences?

What happened to the collective interest principle of Injury To One, Injury To All?

Before proceeding further, l would like to request that readers permit me to put into context the ravenous damage that HIV aids wreaked on the continent of Africa and Africans due to the neglect by the advanced Western societies some 30 years ago.

So allow me put the destructive effects of HlV/AIDS on the continent of Africa in perspective.

According to Wikipedia, in a report put together to mark the 30th year anniversary of HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is believed to have originated in Africa in the early 20th century, the following startling points were made:

“Although the continent is home to about 15.2 (by some account about 17%) percent of the world’s population, more than two-thirds of the total infected worldwide – some 35 million people – were Africans, of whom 15 million have already died.

Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounted for an estimated 69 percent of all people living with HIV and 70 percent of all AIDS deaths in 2011.

In the countries of sub-Saharan Africa most affected, AIDS has raised death rates and lowered life expectancy among adults between the ages of 20 and 49 by about twenty years.

Furthermore, the life expectancy in many parts of Africa is declining, largely as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with life-expectancy in some countries reaching as low as thirty-four years.”

From the foregoing narrative, it is clear that Africa has not recovered from the debilitating effect of HIV/AIDS and it has barely survived Ebola- a highly contagious and deadly disease which struck it barely decade ago.

Since the continent is left to fend for its self by competing with the wealthy countries of the world for the limited supply of Covid-19 vaccines, (reminiscent of how states in the USA competed for PPEs at cut throat prices during the first wave ) the much touted mantra “Africa Rising“ would be a mirage rather than reality as the little progress that the continent had made in the past three  decades in the adoption of democracy as a system of government would be hobbled and as such forced to descend into anarchy and anomie as way of life . Worse still, life in some parts of Africa may return to the Hobbesian state of misery hypothesis.

As epidemiologists and virologists have noted, because the world is now a global village owing to ease of travels, etc., the existence of Covid-19, Ebola and HIV-AIDS in one continent remains an existential threat to people in other continents. For instance, it is because the Chinese in Wuhan, where coronavirus originated could not kill or curtail it, that it spread to Europe via Italy, Spain, UK and then USA. It’s also from Italy that it spread to Nigeria. And when Italy and Spain were in the dog house during the first wave, the world failed to help those countries, even though they were thought to belong together since they are economically advanced and predominantly populated by whites. That’s one of reasons Africa shouldn’t be too optimistic that the Western world would be egalitarian or Democratic enough to share the Covid-19 vaccines equitably.

Clearly, the tried and tested policy: “injury to one, injury to all” do not matter to the wealthy countries hence a country like Canada is reported to have made upfront payment for vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, five times its population and need.

In my previous piece titled “Reasons Coronavirus Crossed Over With Us Into 2021 And The Looming Catastrophe” widely published a couple of weeks ago, l made a case by highlighting the fact that malaria kills about one million people annually and it drains Africa of about $12b yearly.

Since then, I have learnt that mosquito-borne diseases infect nearly 700 million people each year. That is almost one out of every 10 people on Earth.

Please keep in mind that since December 2019 that COVID-19 was discovered in China, it has killed a little more than two million and infected above 100 million human lives globally.

Compare that figure to the reality that one million people are killed annually in Africa, and two million are killed by malaria related illnesses all over the world with 700 million being the number infected by malaria related illnesses worldwide.

That is a huge number and a big deal, too.

But the (WHO) has not and does not intend to declare malaria a pandemic so that it could be collectively tackled by mankind.

As the saying goes, it’s never too late to act. 

Based on the experience with HlV/AIDS and Ebola, if a virus does not cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe or traverse the Atlantic Ocean into the northern American countries of the USA and Canada, which are home to the leading economies, it does not assume the status of a pandemic. That is probably why the people of the continents of origin of the killer viruses HIV/AIDS, Ebola were left to be ravaged.

For instance, Africa did not receive much help from the industrialised western world during the Ebola outbreak in the west African nation of Guinea in December of 2013.

But help came from an unusual quarter, Cuba.

Remarkably, it was that country, which is by far less wealthy and a socialist neighbour of the USA, not the Europeans who are Africa’s closest neighbors that dispatched a team of medical personnel to help control the spread of the epidemic which had spread from Guinea to Sierra-Leone and Liberia.  At about the same time, the USA which had been slow in response also deployed a contingent of its military to lend helping hands in halting the spread of the Ebola virus which had killed over 11 million people in Africa within a period of two years, 2014-2016.

This time around, would help be extended to Nigeria and indeed Africa speedily by sending the Covid-19 vaccine on time, as opposed to sending it only after mortal and grave damage might have been done?

Is history repeating itself?

-Onyibe, an entrepreneur, public policy analyst, author, development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA and a former commissioner in Delta State government, sent this piece from Lagos.

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