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Covid-19 in Africa: Economic Breakdowns and a Looming Health Emergency

Africa has been reporting tens of thousands of new Covid-19 infections weekly. As tragic as each instance of the illness is, African countries have so far not experienced Covid on the explosive scale it has reached in India. African leaders are looking at India with grave concern.

India produces AstraZeneca vaccines. But the country has just stopped sending vaccines to Africa because its own population is in the clutches of an overwhelming health emergency. What will happen to African countries without India’s assurances of vaccines? And what is happening right now? We rarely hear the answers from the major media. Let’s take a look.

Young People in Africa Face a Generational Crisis—Women Especially.

The Pew Research Center reports that 131 million people have sunk into poverty worldwide during the pandemic. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the hardest-hit regions. Informal workers, particularly women, are suffering terribly. A thriving tourism industry has been stalled. It isn’t expected to make a full comeback for years. Many young Kenyans have decided to give up their dreams of education, which are something of a luxury as Covid increases debt across the country. John Nkengasong, who directs CDC operations in Africa, is telling people across the continent to stay out of crowds — including political gatherings.

So far, the African continent has received less than 2 of every 100 vaccinations distributed worldwide. Now, one hoped-for rollout has been suspended, on account of India’s severe tragedy. Congo is sharing their vaccines with other African countries. But this is not because Congo has overflowing supplies. It’s because the country has lacked the means to distribute all it has and does not want to let any stores of vaccines go to waste.

Where Will Vaccines Come From? Will the United States Help?

People are tired. Mask-wearing and testing are getting old, and many aren’t keeping up with these precautions. But the supplies of oxygen across Africa are woefully low. One ray of hope is the change in the tone of the U.S. administration. In May, the Biden government stated its view that vaccine technology should be shared as a matter of global public health.

For months now, South Africa and India have been insisting on a special waiver of intellectual property rights. Pharmaceutical companies oppose the idea of loosening their protections, even for such a compelling reason as a globally devastating pandemic. They insist that other research and development will be less successful if they are expected to work without exclusive rights over their drugs. In the words of Stephen Ubl, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Joe Biden’s willingness to give in to pressure and allow a waiver “will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety.”

Leaders of more than 100 countries disagree. They say the life-saving technology must be shared. In the midst of this devastating pandemic, it’s a matter of morality. The call has been echoed by 110 U.S. Congress members. All of them are Democrats. Eventually, they have been heard.

Now, the U.S. intellectual property regulators may ask the World Trade Organization (WTO) to relax restrictions for Covid-19, and enable more vaccine makers to get involved. The next formal meeting where new proposals could be discussed occurs in the second week of June. That means any technology-sharing agreements cannot be forged for weeks. So, this new change in the U.S. stance will not have any practical effects for months. But at least it is occurring.

The World Trade Organization Versus the World Health Organization?

The WTO representatives are split over the idea of waiving intellectual property rights and requiring large vaccine makers to share their technologies. The question before the WTO is whether shortages of vaccines should force corporations to waive their rights to trade secrets, patents, and copyrights in order to support faster production and broader distribution. In the case of Covid-19, companies would be expected to allow technology transfers for a number of years.

As soon as possible, the WTO must make it happen. It should have done so already. What is happening in India is unspeakable, and African countries must be helped now — not later.

The director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, points out that humanity has already lost more than 3 million lives and many more are suffering from Covid’s long-term health impacts. The WHO leader is pressing for a technology-sharing agreement. May the WTO listen, and may it hasten to act.

Supporting References

Rakesh Kochhar, et al., for the Pew Research Center: The Pandemic Stall Growth in the Global Middle Class, Pushes Poverty Up Sharply (Mar. 18, 2021). 

Jason Burke for the Guardian Observer ‘We’re Just Trying to Survive’: What Africa Risks From a New Covid Wave (May 1, 2021)

Associated Press: Alarm Grows in Africa as it Watches India’s COVID-19 Crisis (Apr. 30, 2021)

 Associated Press: Biden Administration Backs Waiving Intellectual Property Rules on Covid Vaccines (May 5, 2021).


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