As rich countries ramped up efforts to give their populations COVID-19 booster vaccines at the end of November, the World Health Organization released a shocking statistic: Only one in four African healthcare workers had been completely vaccinated against the virus.

“The majority of African health workers still lack vaccines and remain dangerously exposed to severe Covid-19 infection,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “Unless our doctors, nurses and other frontline workers are fully protected, we risk a setback in efforts to fight this disease. We need to make sure our healthcare facilities are safe working environments. “

The figure comes from an analysis of data from 25 countries, but access to vaccines is a problem across the continent. By mid-December, Moeti said, given the current situation, Africa is not expected to reach a 70% coverage target until August 2024. Only six countries have vaccinated 40% of their citizens; 20 African countries reached 10 percent.

Tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented in 2021 with more protection, Moeti said. “These are not just numbers, they reflect the loss of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, co-workers and neighbors whose deaths have caused untold suffering to those they have left behind. them.”

In the six weeks leading up to Christmas, wealthy countries received more boosters than vaccines delivered to African countries in the year to date. This happened as the new Omicron variant quickly spread across the continent. Kenya’s test positivity rate has jumped to nearly 40 percent this week; Zimbabwe passed 47 percent on December 20.

Oxygen cans

The latest wave of Covid-19 has arrived as Christmas approaches, when large numbers of people enter and leave the region, congregate in large groups, or travel within the country to be with family. In West Africa, it also happened at the same time as the Harmattan, a season when people usually have the flu or cough, which means they may not recognize the symptoms of Covid-19. In Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, Health Ministry spokesman Harold Thomas said the cases they are currently recording could be the “tip of the iceberg”, and that seems to be true for the anecdote.

A doctor working on Covid-19 said 60% of patients admitted to hospital die due to lack of capacity to treat them.

“It is increasing exponentially and we are concerned,” Thomas said. Only 14% of beds designated for Covid-19 patients are currently in use, but in the third wave, which hit Sierra Leone last June, people were dying not from lack of hospital beds, but because of ‘They couldn’t afford $ 75 oxygen cartridges, while even those who could did not have access to the ventilators they needed.

This lack of capacity is echoed in many other countries. In Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, an area already grappling with the impacts of a decade-long insurgency, a doctor working on Covid-19 told me 60% of patients admitted to hospital die due to the lack of capacity to process them.

In Sierra Leone, where the health system was severely affected by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2015, government-hired staff who handle Covid-19 cases say they do not hasn’t been paid for months. When I asked Thomas about it, he confirmed this to be true and said that some had also been made redundant in the previous months when few cases were recorded because it was too costly for the government to continue. to pay them.

Domestic production

The lack of domestic production means that African countries depend on donated vaccines. Often, they arrive too close to the expiration date to be distributed, resulting in wastage. In Nigeria – where only about 2% of the population is fully immunized – a million vaccines have recently been destroyed for this reason.

Campaigns are underway to secure approval of the so-called TRIPS waiver, a proposal first made by India and South Africa in October 2020, which calls on high-income countries to temporarily waive intellectual property rights in Covid-19 medical products, including vaccines. It is now supported by more than 100 other low- and middle-income countries.

Lack of domestic production means African countries depend on donated vaccines

The People’s Vaccine Alliance Ireland, a coalition of organizations including Access to Medicines Ireland, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Goal, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organization, accused the Ireland and the EU to support a ‘rich country assembly’. More than 400 leading scientists and health professionals have signed a public statement urging the government to support the waiver and do even more, for example by ensuring that vaccine recall strategies are “ethical in a global context. “.

At the end of November, activists staged a demonstration outside Leinster House on the model of a funeral procession. They rang a bell every four seconds to signify that someone is dying with this regularity due to vaccine inequity.

“The new highly mutated Omicron variant… Is clear proof that the only way to end the pandemic is to vaccinate the whole world. The global vaccine inequity created by rich countries and pharmaceutical companies Western systems have helped create the conditions for this type of deadly mutation to develop, ”said Jim Clarken, Executive Director of Oxfam Ireland.

“Rather than giving developing countries manufacturing rights and ensuring that people get vaccinated to cut off the new variants… The better answer. [rich countries] can bring together is to put up walls to a variant that they have allowed to develop.