While European countries know a fresh Soaring Covid-19 infections and starting to target the unvaccinated as culprits, it’s easy to forget the yawning divide between the West and the developing world. In Africa, millions of people have been infected with the disease, with the number of deaths sting since this summer. Worse yet, a analysis of the World Health Organization (WHO) says the actual number of infections could be up to seven times higher than currently reported figures.
Global vaccine inequality is largely responsible for Africa’s slow progress in the fight against COVID-19. In October of this year, the G20 countries had received 15 times more vaccine doses per capita than countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and less than five percent of the African population has been fully immunized so far. It is because rich countries have failed follow through on previous vaccine promises to low- and middle-income countries through the global COVAX initiative.
A growing vaccine gap
Of the 1.3 billion doses promised to the continent, only 356 million doses were actually delivered thanks to the initiative. Of those that have been delivered, the receiving countries are often in the dark on the type of vaccine given, worsening the nightmarish logistical challenge of getting shots safely. As a result, many countries remain extremely vulnerable to an exacerbation of the pandemic. With the developed West now facing what will likely be the worst Covid winter yet, there is a good chance that enthusiasm for distributing coveted vaccine doses in Africa will wane further.
It doesn’t help that some countries are forced to wage a double battle of misconceptions about the virus and high levels of mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines. The apostolic church in Zimbabwe, for example, has a tradition of rejecting medical interventions. The leaders of these “white garment” churches have refuse to encourage the faithful to be vaccinated. Many do as they are told, “We believe in God, and science is entirely subject to the will of God. argues Gramaridge Musendekwa, of the Vadzidzi Apostolic Church, “My family will not take the vaccine because we are protected by prayers.”
Dispelling the myths of Covid in the DRC
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, President Félix Tshisekedi was in quest improve immunization coverage in the country since taking office in 2018, with a particular focus on standard vaccinations against diseases such as measles, mumps and others. To achieve this, in 2018 the government launched the Emergency Plan for Revitalization of routine immunization, which aims to increase national immunization coverage by 15%, targeting the most vulnerable regions.
Building on these national and pan-African preparatory initiatives, Tshisekedi is also fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. He has received his Covid-19 jab in September this year, urging his compatriots to do the same: “The vaccine remains the best solution available to fight Covid-19 at this time”, noted Tshisekedi at the time of his jab, “Having lost several loved ones to illness, I am in a better position to bear witness to the devastating impact of the pandemic.”
The fight against vaccine disinformation has been a government priority since the start of the pandemic, when the DRC government introduced new tools and recruited specialized companies to fight the problem. For example, in March 2020, Minister of Health Eteni Longono launched “Minsante TV” to provide accurate media coverage on Covid-19 in the country. Government officials have also created a dedicated online portal, Stop Corona Virus DRC, to offer “official information and real-time fact-checking from the country’s pandemic response team.”
The battle for disinformation in South Africa
Meanwhile, the DRC has received 250,000 doses of Moderna vaccine and 250,000 other Pfizer doses soon subsequently – seen as a crucial step in building the confidence of the Congolese people in the vaccination campaign – other countries struggle harder to overcome the resistance of their populations. In South Africa, researchers noticed an increase in vaccine reluctance among 18-24 year olds, from 37% in January to 45% in August.
Worse yet, there doesn’t appear to be a readily available answer to the phenomenon, the researchers admit. Catholicism, as in many African countries, is probably a determinantBut so too has the government been slow to respond to the spread of misinformation about the virus and vaccines. At the start of the pandemic last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa introduced a new law making it illegal to disseminate false information – an ineffective tool given its real lack of bite and the institutional hindrance to its application. Instead, private initiatives consisting of volunteers handle most of the fight against fake news, spending hours debunking misinformation on social media.
Listen to the voice of Africa
At the head of the African Union (AU), Tshisekedi also held call on rich countries to keep their promises to help Africa in the fight against COVID-19, and pushed to expand the variety of vaccines offered in the DRC and across the continent. In October, the AU announced its intention to purchase up to 110 million doses Moderna’s Covid vaccines, to be distributed over several months in badges of 15, 35 and 60 million doses. This move should immediately increase the amount of vaccines available – a big step towards achieving the WHO minimum target of seeing 10% of the population of African countries vaccinated, albeit with a delay.
As the developed world braces for a harsh winter, Africa should not be forgotten, both financially and in terms of vaccines. If the pandemic is to be overcome, the continent must be supported by all means – the West would be wise to realize that nothing can be won as long as the developing world is left in the dust.