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Opinion Africa’s vaccine shortages and the global apathy about protecting Black lives

A health-care worker administers a covid-19 vaccine in Dakar, Senegal, on July 28. (Leo Correa/AP)
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Interviewing Ayoade Alakija, an epidemiologist who co-chairs the African Union’s Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, about vaccine access was a brief, brutal lesson in global necropolitics.

“Karen, it feels like the world doesn’t care about us,” the doctor said during a WhatsApp video call from Lagos, Nigeria. “The global community does not care about whether we live or die.”

Last year, the world was sounding the alarm over the human and economic toll that covid-19 would have on Africa. But I bristled at Africa being painted as a diseased, hopeless continent. I wrote at the time that the world was rushing to hold up richer countries such as New Zealand and Singapore as examples of controlling the pandemic, while seeming to ignore the early successes that a number of African countries had in containing the virus.

I also had hope that my motherland would be spared from covid-19’s wrath. But these days, my hope is in short supply.

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Africa is in a deadly vise grip, stuck between its deadliest wave yet and a dismal lack of access to vaccines that is revealing, yet again, that global multilateralism has never been about human cooperation, but about raw power.

Rich countries have gobbled up the vast majority of available doses, while less than 2 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have been vaccinated. The virus is claiming lives fast, but stigma about the disease combined with a lack of reliable data collection is obscuring the real death toll.

Many experts warned of “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine apartheid” early on, but the warning was ignored. In a pained essay about losing his uncle, Kenyan journalist and CNN correspondent Larry Madowo wrote that “the public shaming has made little real difference, and Africa has received the fewest vaccines in the globe so far.”

As an American with family in Ghana, it has been infuriating to watch the United States swim in excess doses while infantile partisan squabbling hampers efforts to get shots into people’s arms. “Some Americans are even getting bribed with beer, doughnuts or cash to get covid-19 shots,” Madowo wrote, "when many Africans would happily take them for free if they were available.”

Increasingly, Africans with means are taking to traveling abroad for shots. But this is a privilege only available to Africans with the money to get around stringent anti-African visa policies in Western nations. “This is going to become the disease of the poor,” Alakija said.

Getting vaccines to the continent is not an issue of charity. Many African countries had the money to buy vaccines, but richer countries had what counts, which is power and access. While wealthy nations struck up huge deals with pharmaceutical companies, African countries were largely left to rely on global distribution agreements through the global Covax effort, backed by the Geneva-based Gavi. But Covax set an initial target of vaccinating at least 20 percent of poorer countries’ populations — a low bar of a goal that it will likely not be able to meet, given current projections.

And even if it did, relying on Covax as the main pillar of resistance against covid-19 was always going to be a shaky strategy. This fact came into sharp relief when India, one of the main suppliers of the low-cost vaccines, was hit badly by the delta variant, and halted its exports and donations to poorer countries and to the Covax effort.

And it’s not as if African countries have not contributed to vaccine development. Kenyan volunteers working with Oxford University participated in human clinical trials of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Yet none of this helped Kenya gain priority access to more vaccines.

Africa is starting to get donated doses from abroad, but not nearly enough. The United States recently sent 10 million vaccines to South Africa and Nigeria, with populations of 58 million and 200 million, respectively.

There are also reasons to believe the shipments might not be effective. The United Kingdom has pledged 5 million doses of the vaccine to Covax, and around 800,000 doses directly to Kenya, but those vaccines may be set to expire in just a few weeks.

And while rich countries deserve blame for vaccine hoarding, African leaders are suffering from dislocated priorities. The sleepwalking administration of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari received more global coverage in June for banning Twitter after the platform deleted his tweet than for leading the fight to procure vaccines. Before Tanzania’s President John Magufuli died in office earlier this year, he was a spreader of covid-19 misinformation and falsehoods about the vaccine.

Alakija told me that anxious officials from African nations were calling her, asking to help them get vaccines. ”This is no longer just a health crisis, but a diplomatic and humanitarian crisis,” she said. “These leaders need to be doing whatever they can to engage at the highest levels with wealthier countries.”

Alakija, one of the few women in Africa leading vaccine access efforts, said she has grown tired of screaming into the void. I can’t blame her. Global apathy for Black lives remains abundant — and there’s no antidote in sight.