The writer is co-chair of the African Union, Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, and former chief humanitarian co-ordinator of Nigeria
In the race between variants and vaccines, the emergence of Omicron could be the defining moment of this pandemic. This virus is waging war on all of us — battering our bodies, economies and societies. Some continents are faring worse than others, Africa in particular. Just this week, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa accused rich countries of creating a “vaccine apartheid” by hoarding jabs they didn’t need and giving poorer countries only “crumbs from their table”.
To win the war, we must fight on all fronts through diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. Just as multilateralism was forged in the aftermath of world war two, Covid-19 requires a deconstruction of old ways of thinking and a new perspective on our future. The task is urgent. If we do not start now, we will have to battle this virus beyond Omicron to Omega. The idea that low vaccination rates across Africa — where less than eight per cent of the total 1.3bn population is fully vaccinated — are due to hesitancy rather than supply is false and simplistic.
We are experiencing the wider impacts of the virus everywhere. Global economic growth and trade has been damped, interest rates are expected to rise, commodity prices are volatile and macroeconomic uncertainty is contributing to debt crises. But while developed nations are able to implement safety nets, such as furlough schemes, low-income countries can provide little or no ballast for their citizens. Countries such as Uganda and Mozambique are suffering rising rates of poverty and inequality, with the last 20 years of development gains wiped out by the virus. The divergence between rich and poor nations is rising, and will continue to do so if new waves of infection, renewed travel bans and declining confidence inhibit recovery.
Women and girls are bearing the brunt of the problems. Across Africa, girls are dropping out of school, thus widening the education gap, while early marriage has increased in Nigeria, and there is a rise in sexual and gender-based violence in South Africa. All this underscores the importance of promoting inclusion through recovery.
The full effects of long Covid are not yet known but the impact on the young and economically active is already significant across the west. Re-building requires a healthy, educated labour force. Do unvaccinated populations in lower-income countries have any real chance of reaping a demographic dividend? A demographic disaster may be more likely.
The consequences of countries in the global north acting purely in their own national interests are dire. Decisions rooted in politics rather than science have led to reactive policies such as travel bans and hoarding vaccines, which isolate less privileged countries in unnecessary and biased ways. These decisions are being made in the absence of comprehensive data on Omicron.
To reverse the backward slide into greater poverty and economic instability, we need to construct global institutions that can support those countries in the global south which have been left behind. Organisations such as the G20 need greater inclusivity in their decision-making. More people should be invited to the top table to discuss who can travel and who is banned, who is vaccinated on what timescale, and ultimately who lives and who dies.
We can start by distributing vaccines more effectively around the world, sharing production technology and implementing intellectual property waivers to allow local manufacture. Lifting the asymmetric travel restrictions that disproportionately affect African countries must be done immediately. These actions will reduce inequities and strengthen the collective recovery. The time for global leaders to act responsibly is long overdue.