Pandemic | South Africa

An overdose of egoism

While politicians in the USA and Europe discuss herd immunity and booster shots, many African countries are still lacking vital vaccines. Once again, the West looks the other way

An illustration of a hand holding a syringe upside down. A red needle goes into the palm of the hand. A bubble forms in the middle of the needle. The thumbnail is painted with the US flag, the index fingernail with the European flag.

“I expect citizens in Europe and the US to hold their governments to account over vaccine nationalism” 

On the morning of 7th April 1994, the Tutsi people of Rwanda woke up to the sounds of gunshots and armed militias hoisting machetes on the streets. Soon, the machetes were tearing through the flesh of every Tutsi person in sight, including women and children. By the end of the massacre, more than 500 000 people would be dead.

Unlike many other genocides in the world where intervention by the international community is swift, and where condemnation is loud, the Rwanda Genocide was met with an audible silence. Not a single country, not a single agency, not even the United Nations, intervened for the people of Rwanda. Only European citizens and personnel were escorted out of the country. After the evacuation, they did not stay behind to help those who were being killed. 

Just two years later, the Western world would once again maintain an audible silence when American multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporation, Pfizer, tested a new antibiotic on children during the meningitis epidemic. Eleven children died.

It later emerged that Pfizer had falsified the approval letter for human trials and had given them substantially reduced dosage of an effective treatment. Again, the world said nothing and it took two decades for the families of the dead children to get some kind of justice in the form of monetary compensation.

The world community has experience in failing to help Africa. Then it is hardly surprising that the world is once again sitting back and watching as African people die, but this time, from a pandemic.

The  global spread of COVID-19 began as a health emergency and has become a socio-economic and political crisis of immeasurable proportions. In an Africa that was already grossly underdeveloped and where millions of people were living beyond the poverty line, the pandemic has battered national economies and crippled what limited social infrastructure there is.

“In Africa, there are currently only two doses of vaccine per hundred people”

In my country, South Africa, the pandemic has deepened the economic inequalities that had already resulted in the country being deemed one of the most unequal in the world. At the receiving end of this are Black people and in particular, Black women. According to one study conducted during the first wave in mid-2020, three million people lost their jobs just the first three months of the pandemic.

Two million of these were women. This had a devastating impact on millions of households, plunging many into a state of food insecurity. The cost to human life has also been devastating. As of June 26, 2021, the country has had nearly two million total cases and sixty thousand deaths. The country has also just entered the third wave of the pandemic and by all indications, it is going to be more devastating than the previous one.

At the heart of the crisis is that there are low rates of vaccination in South Africa and across the entire African continent. Only about two doses of vaccine have been administered per one hundred people in Africa. This pales in comparison to around 70 doses per one hundred people in high-income countries. Less than one percent of the continent’s population has been fully vaccinated.

The reasons for this vary, but the main one is the severe shortage of vaccines. And vaccines are in short supply in large part due to their hoarding by the wealthier and more developed nations of the world such as European countries and the US. It is not for nothing that the World Health Organisation (WHO) in early August called for a temporary suspension ofbooster vaccinations in order to focus on vaccinating people in low-income countries. 

“I will not stay silent when companies and countries that control the global supply of vaccines think the world’s poor should be satisfied with leftovers,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the time.

Even before the end of final stage of human trials and regulatory approval, several wealthy countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, France and Germany had entered into pre-purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca.

Today, many of these countries have vaccinated enough of their populations to achieve herd immunity. In some of them, the virus has been effectively contained and economic as well as social activities have resumed. But here in Africa, the pandemic is continuing to collapse our healthcare systems and to claim our lives. 

“Of course, no one is asking people in Europe or the United States to forgo their own vaccination in favour of others. What we are asking for is solidarity”

I have become so desensitised to news about the deaths of loved ones that I can no longer weep. It is unthinkable to me that governments of developed nations can be this diabolical in the midst of a global pandemic. But more unthinkable is the audible silence that is being maintained by citizens of these countries – men and women who are aware of what is happening in Africa and other parts of the developing world, but who are unwilling to stand up against their own governments to demand justice.

Just as no-one expected ordinary European and American citizens to go to Rwanda in 1994 to physically confront the heavily armed Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militia that were killing innocent people, no one is expecting Europeans and Americans to forgo their own vaccination by giving their vaccine doses to the world’s poor.

But what we expect at the very least is for them to pledge solidarity with us by holding their own governments accountable for the vaccine nationalism that has made it impossible for poor nations to flatten the curve. We expect, from the people of Germany and other developed nations, to speak up for us since we are too sick to muster the strength to speak up for ourselves. This is not a Herculean task – it is a moral obligation which anyone with a sense of compassion and humanity ought to feel.

At the same time, the leaders of my own country and the rest of the continent are infuriating me. Africa has faced many epidemics in the past, including cholera, malaria, dysentery and haemorrhagic fevers. Just five years ago, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa claimed the lives of more than eleven thousand people.

Despite this, there are less than ten manufacturers of vaccines on the continent, spread among five countries – with only two (South Africa and Senegal) being in sub-Saharan Africa. But even in these countries, there is no large-scale production capacity. This is largely due to the fact that we are failing to build critical infrastructure and instead, our political leaders are looting state coffers and collaborating with Western multi-national companies and governments to disenfranchise their own countries.

Thus, we find ourselves in this crisis not only because we are Africans and poor, but because we have leaders who do not hesitate to fly to Europe to receive medical treatment when they are sick. Rather than fix the healthcare systems in their countries, our leaders depend on the infrastructure of European countries which the ordinary African can never afford. 

Africans are not a White man’s burden, and so I will never advance an argument that governments of the United States and European countries should babysit us. But the developed world has a responsibility to assist the continent in its development not only because it is human and morally correct, but because most if not all of these countries have built their wealth on the backs of African people.

From the trans-Atlantic slave trade to colonial conquest, American and European economies have depended on the labour of African people and the natural resources of Africa which continue to be plundered while those they are supposed to benefit wake up every morning not knowing where the next meal is going to come from.

To this day, economies of many developed countries depend on the raw materials sourced in Africa and on the large African consumer market that is unable to manufacture its own products due to systematic underdevelopment facilitated by a history of colonialism and imperial devastation. With African leaders as their allies, European governments have pillaged our countries. And today we are losing the battle against a devastating global pandemic because of it.

Twenty-seven years ago, the world watched the people of Rwanda die and did nothing. It heard their blood-curdling screams, and it covered its ears to block out the sound. It is a history that cannot be re-written. The Rwanda Genocide cannot be undone. But the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, it is still ravaging the world. Therefore, there is still the opportunity to intervene.

There is still a chance to save the multitudes of Africans who will die in the coming few months if vaccines do not reach our countries on time. I write this from Johannesburg where in the last twenty-four hours, more than ten thousand new infections were reported. I write this as a 29-year-old. As things stand, there is no guarantee that I will live to see my 30th birthday.

And like millions of people in my country and on the continent, I am absolutely terrified. I do not want to die. We do not want to die. But if we are going to live, then we need the world to believe that our lives matter. The citizens of Europe and America need to demand from their governments greater efforts in availing vaccines to us so that we may at least have a fighting chance. You sat back and watched the people of Rwanda die. Please don’t do it again.