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Vaccine Apartheid

Vaccine Apartheid

Victor Baatweng writes about the Omicron variant in the context of vaccine inequity - with a particular focus on Botswana.


Omicron ascertains that Africa is on track to be left behind

Unvaccinated Africa is facing a protracted pandemic and economic slowdown, thanks largely to the latest COVID 19 edition – Omicron. While Omicron is not the first COVID-19 variant to be discovered, it is unique due to its direct link to the continent of Africa. Most importantly, Omicron has put a spotlight on the global vaccine rollout trends.

The trajectory from the first day of the vaccine rollout points toward a great divide between countries such as Botswana, with limited access to vaccines, and those who are now rolling out booster jabs. But as more and more cases of Omicron emerge in different parts of the world, one has to join global scientists to condemn rich nations for hoarding the vaccines and denying doses to countries like Botswana. This is because with the latest variant, instead of being lauded for alerting the world, Botswana and her neighbour South Africa are now facing the wrath of the more economically developed countries. The rich nations have imposed travel ban and consequently halted the delivery of more vaccines to nations like Botswana. The inequities continue to grow.

Even before the arrival of Omicron the vaccines inequities were here with us. This explains why nations like Botswana had to join the World Health Organization’s vaccine rollout scheme dubbed COVAX. Initially COVAX aimed to deliver at least 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 to cover 20 percent of the most vulnerable people in 91 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. To date only about 537 million doses have been shipped thanks largely to nationalism practiced by the powerful nations.

Now with the Omicron sponsored travel ban, the numbers of the jabbed populace are likely to just stay the same while that of mortalities could go up. Without adequate access to vaccines, millions more cases of Covid-19 continue to strain health systems on the continent including in Botswana. To date Botswana, with a population of 2.4 million, has already lost 2,418 people. The ongoing vaccines inequalities not only costs lives and livelihoods in countries that are denied access but it also a threat to global efforts to overcome the pandemic.

Global instability and uncertainty will also have geopolitical ramifications. Already some African leaders have rightfully uttered sentiments such as “vaccine apartheid” to show their displeasure for this inequity. This is because the new variant comes at a time when economic engines of the powerful nations had begun to hum and their businesses shift levers have adjusted to new trading environments. On the other end, for nations like Botswana their economies remain in the state of paralysis. The business community is operating under the scare of the possibility of disruptions to trade due to discovery of new variant and subsequent travel bans.

The only thing the prohibition on travel is doing now is a further damage to the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic. Already the economic downturn driven by lockdowns and restrictions on travel in 2020 has given way to a sluggish economic recovery for Botswana. Just two months ago the country’s economic growth rate projection was raised by the International Monetary Fund as part of countries that will benefit from rising commodity prices.  By October 2021, the country, whose economy is reliant on diamond exports, was expected to grow by 9.2 percent, up from earlier projections of 8.5 percent. Thanks to Omicron and the inequities in vaccines distribution, this growth will not be achieved.

During the same month, credit rating agency - S&P Global Ratings (S&P) revised Botswana’s economic outlook from negative to stable on account of anticipated rebound in economic growth.

The move to change the economic outlook to stable was based on expectations that Botswana’s economic recovery will be driven by the anticipated strong recovery in the diamond market which, in turn, should result in a substantial improvement in the domestic fiscal and external sectors’ performance over the next two years.

S&P indicated that a change to the current rating, going forward, will depend on a variety of factors, with a possibility of an upgrade if Botswana manages to rebuild the fiscal and external buffers. Another possibility is a downgrade if the opposite happens which is what Omicron and vaccine inequities seems to be pushing for. Despite the dent in the country’s fiscus the Botswana government has spent close to $20 million on procuring vaccines for much of its population but is yet to receive a large portion of the ordered doses. So far, the country has managed to fully vaccinate only 508,980 of the targeted 1.4 million people. In the meantime, the vaccine rollout inequities continue to frustrate efforts by Botswana and other African nations to jab more of their people and the arrival of Omicron only ascertains Africa’s position on vaccines queue.

The views of this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of Mastercard Foundation.