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Help or Hindrance? Vaccine Diplomacy in Africa

Help or Hindrance? Vaccine Diplomacy in Africa

Mandipa Machacha shares her opinions as vaccines from COVAX begin to trickle into the continent, current doses in the hands of most African countries are sufficient to vaccinate approximately 0.8 - 0.9 percent of populations in the first quarter.


“Poor countries will remember who came to their assistance, and when.”

Help or Hindrance? Vaccine Diplomacy in Africa

Africa has been identified as a battleground for vaccine diplomacy, where after receiving limited vaccines from western suppliers, countries have recently increasingly looked to China and Russia to bolster inoculation supplies. Feminist human rights practitioner, Mandipa Machacha weighs in on whether this all is a help or a hindrance to the continent.

Africa faces various challenges in obtaining the doses it needs to reach herd immunity. It has been well documented that countries which funded the development of COVID-19 vaccines felt entitled to the first manufactured jabs (some purchasing enough vaccines to vaccinate their populations six times over), which left poorer countries with no doses. Rwandan President Paul Kagame wrote impassionedly about this ‘vaccine nationalism’ in an article in the Guardian.

With the first batches of COVID-19 vaccines in Africa arriving as ‘donations’ from China and India, some have questioned whether these countries are using their vaccines to strengthen international ties and enhance their own power and global status during a worldwide health crisis. Some have even said that the term is being used by the West to discredit the vaccines in a neoliberal bid to retain control of global vaccine production and distribution. Others say that China and others are using vaccines to exploit poorer nations and gain influence.

Assuming that each vaccine requires the administration of two doses, Africa, with a population of over 1.3 billion people, will need at least 1.6 billion to meet a 60 percent herd immunity vaccination target. Countries in the global north have also famously rejected proposals to share COVID-19 related IP technologies which would allow for manufacturing scale up and increased supply of COVID-19 vaccines. Current projections state that most countries in Africa will only reach maximum vaccine coverage in 2023.

Access to adequate supply of vaccines is thus a pertinent issue in Africa. COVAX, an international alliance which was formed to ensure equitable access to vaccines, will likely only provide enough vaccines to vaccinate 20% of populations by the end of 2021. Similarly, the Africa Union AVATT facility will cover 10%-15% of African populations this year. This has left a sizable deficit of vaccines in Africa, and in light of this many African governments have made the decision to look to the East for vaccines.

China, Russia and India: Filling the Gap?

These vaccines have allowed a number of countries in Africa to begin vaccination programs which they would not have otherwise been able to implement. Zimbabwe, one of the first countries in Africa to receive donated doses of Sinopharm began its vaccination program in February 2021. At the time of writing this article, many countries in Africa were still waiting for COVAX supplies and have not administered a single dose.

The advantages here cannot be overlooked. Where there is a huge shortfall, countries such as China may potentially fill the gap. The situation becomes murky when upon closer observation it becomes clear that those predominantly receiving vaccine donations have longstanding ties with and are also heavily indebted to their benefactors. This obvious power imbalance has fostered a sense of distrust.

In Zimbabwe, citizens believed that donated vaccines were sub-par; similar hesitancy was observed in Egypt. China has stated on various occasions that their only intention is to assist those with limited access to vaccines, and views vaccine access as a ‘global public good’.

Important Options

Western countries have repeatedly stated that they will only donate surplus supply once they have fully vaccinated their own populations, which, given the slow rate of vaccination and the challenges they are facing, will be many months from now.

As vaccines from COVAX begin to trickle into the continent, current doses in the hands of most African countries are sufficient to vaccinate approximately 0.8 - 0.9 percent of populations in the first quarter. Waiting for the west to deliver vaccines while people continue to contract the disease cannot be our only option. Whatever their ‘true’ intentions Chinese, Russian and Indian vaccines provide an important alternative for African governments to consider in the context of global limited supply.

Also, the ‘influence’ China and others will have will likely be minimal as African governments will likely seek to purchase vaccines from a variety of sources, since rapidly securing the necessary vaccine doses is their foremost priority currently. They are therefore unlikely to become dependent on a single provider, which will limit any one country’s influence. It is only in exceptional cases such as Congo, Guinea, Senegal, Seychelles and Zimbabwe, where Chinese vaccines make up a significant proportion of the total supply being used in the country.

Essentially, the game is old, the players are new, but one really wishes there wouldn’t be a game at all. The most important difference between COVID-19 and previous vaccinations drives is that this is the first mass vaccination of a majority of the global adult population, so in an ideal world, to meet the world’s supply needs, both Eastern and Western vaccine producers would extend a helping hand to countries which are in need, rather than using vaccines as a tool of competition and turn the issue of global public health products into a geopolitical one.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author