Can you blame Zimbabwe for relying on the Chinese for Covid-19 vaccines?


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In a shocking symbol of the west’s failure to honour its promise of equitable vaccine distribution, millions of Covid vaccines manufactured in Africa that should have saved the lives of Africans have been shipped to Europe in recent weeks.

Indeed I have learned from African leaders that, this month and next, about 10m single-shot Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccines filled and finished at the Aspen factory in South Africa will be exported to Europe, at the very time that Africa is grappling with its deadliest wave of Covid-19 infections yet.

Compared with the swift development of the pathbreaking Covid vaccines, getting shots into all the world’s arms should be straightforward. But vaccine nationalism – and Europe’s neocolonial approach to global health – is dividing the world into rich and protected people, who live, and those who are poor, unprotected and at risk of dying.

Of the 4.7bn vaccines that have been distributed globally, more than 80% have gone to the richest G20 countries. The gap between rich and poor is now so wide that, while high-income countries have administered almost 100 doses for every 100 citizens, low-income countries have administered only 1.5 doses per 100.

To date, 496m vaccines have been administered across the European Union, which has a population of roughly 440 million people. Only 77.3m doses have been administered across Africa’s population, which is almost three times as large, at 1.3 billion people.

And so, while 50% of European, US and UK adult populations have now been fully vaccinated, the figure for Africa is 1.8%, well behind India, which has only vaccinated 8% of its population.

Due to the sluggish delivery of vaccines, the World Health Organization (WHO) now predicts that 47 of Africa’s 54 countries will miss even the very modest September target of vaccinating 10% of their citizens. In countries like Burundi, not a single vaccine has yet been administered.

At these current rates there is no hope of Africa achieving the west’s vaccination levels this year or next. Unsurprisingly, African leaders speak of “vaccine apartheid”. While governments across the west get ready to administer booster vaccines, millions of Africa’s nurses and health workers, risking their lives to save others, will go wholly unprotected. So will Africa’s vulnerable elderly population.

The vaccine programme should have been a new kind of “arms” race. In quick succession, country after country should have been able to inject its citizens. Instead, the countries with the most vaccines are failing to help those with the least, and now the damaging economic effects on jobs and livelihoods are causing a growing divergence between the fate of poor and rich countries.

Low vaccination rates across the continent have led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to mark down African economic prospects yet again, while upping those of the vaccinated west, and Africa is suffering growth rates that are half those of the rest of the world.

The African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), disappointed by the failure of the west to honour its promises of delivering funding for 700m vaccines to Africa by the end of the year (the multinational Covax facility has been able to secure only 60m so far), has now taken matters into its own hands.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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