Even at 96, my Kenyan grandmother was among hundreds of millions in developing countries who had not been vaccinated until recently because rich countries have hoarded most of the available injections. Although I am more than 60 years her junior, I was fully vaccinated in April because I lived in the United States, where anyone over the age of 12 can get a vaccine if they want to.
The acute shortage of doses for the world’s poorest people has been called “vaccine apartheid”.greed
‘ and a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. Yet public disgrace has made little real difference, and Africa has received the fewest vaccines in the world to date.
About half of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Here in Kenya, that figure is just 1.1% of the population. As rich countries drop all restrictions and reopen their societies as most adults are fully vaccinated, new cases are increasing at the fastest ever rate in Africa, where very few people are vaccinated.
The West has stockpiled more vaccines than they will ever need, with deals brokered by several countries allowing them to buy enough doses to vaccinate each of their citizens multiple times. At the start of the year, North American countries had bought enough doses to fully vaccinate the region’s population more than twice, while African countries had only received enough vaccines to cover a third of the continent’s population. The youngest country in the world, South Sudan, is now completely out of vaccines and has halted its program because it doesn’t know when it will get more vaccines.
Of the 3.5 billion people already vaccinated worldwide, only 1.6% are in African countries. New cases have been rising across the continent for eight straight weeks, leading to another wave of lockdowns, overwhelmed health care systems, lost livelihoods and – worst of all – a large death toll. In the past week alone, the number of fatalities had increased by more than 40%. Many of these could have been prevented if more Africans had been vaccinated.
Unable to mourn
I had just finished filming in a crowded ICU treating critical Covid-19 patients in Uganda’s capital Kampala last month when I learned that my uncle Justus himself died of the virus across the border in Kenya. I was devastated and angry. He was not vaccinated because Kenya does not – and still does not – have enough injections, even for a senior like him.
Justus was buried within 48 hours, as required by the Kenyan government. He was the third family member to die during the pandemic that I didn’t get a chance to mourn properly or to rest.
In western Kenya, where my grandmother lives and where my uncle has passed away, they are in a state of emergency as the Delta variant sweeps through the region. This is another blow to an impoverished region in a country that has had a nationwide curfew since the end of March 2020.
Like anywhere else in the world, pandemic fatigue is sweeping Africa. The difference here is that people can’t afford to ignore common sense public health measures because we don’t have the luxury of a widespread rollout of vaccines and herd immunity to protect us.
“And because people are dying every day, that’s why I say a vaccine delayed is a refused vaccine,” Dr. Gitahi Githinji, group CEO of Amref Health Africa, told CNN.
Africans stunned by Western restraint
Rwanda probably has the strictest social distancing rules and masks I’ve ever seen on the continent, but the East African nation has been forced into another strict lockdown to try to water down the force of a vicious third wave of infections. The country followed all the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and appeared to be doing everything right, but was still inundated with coronavirus cases, as only vaccines offer real protection. With only about 2% of Rwandans vaccinated, this may not be the country’s last lockdown.
Many people I’ve met in the five African countries I’ve visited over the past few weeks have been amazed at the vaccine resistance in the West. Together with a friend in Nairobi, I looked at the coverage of protests in Europe against vaccination rules. “Can they give us those vaccines they don’t want?” she asked.
Some Americans are even bribed with beer, donuts or cash to get Covid-19 shots, while many Africans would happily take them for free if they were available. While the world’s richest appear to be embarking on a post-pandemic life, the rest of us in the South are still gripped by a devastating crisis with no way out for the foreseeable future. The highly transmissible Delta variant has now been detected in 21 African countries, and that is still counting.
Global health authorities have warned that during a global pandemic, no one is safe until everyone is safe. But vaccine disparities mean new strains of virus could emerge in Africa and spread quickly to the rest of the world, rendering any massive vaccine gains elsewhere ineffective.
A deserted continent
The biggest lesson for Africa, some leaders here say, is that it stands alone and there is no such thing as global solidarity when people are most vulnerable.
“As a continent, we must stop believing that there is someone who is a Biblical Good Samaritan who is about to come and help us,” Kenyan health minister Mutahi Kagwe told me in May. “This is a situation where we’ve seen very clearly that it’s everyone for themselves or for themselves and God for all of us.”
Countries like Kenya rely on COVAX, a WHO effort to provide Covid-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries at subsidized costs, but it is underfunded and the need far exceeds the tiny drop of shots available to distribute. .
Long after the richest parts of the world won the war against the pandemic, Africa could be the last place on Earth still fighting a vicious virus with no weapons or ammunition. The oft-repeated mantra that “we’re in this together” rings hollow when a privileged few have more vaccines than they need and a great many nothing.
By the time my grandmother was vaccinated by local officials, it was already too late as she was infected with Covid-19. She outlived her husband, my paternal grandfather, more than 25 years, but we are now learning that she may not survive this disease. All I needed to get protection was to walk to a nearby drugstore in Washington, DC. But many people like my grandmother have died, or will die, because of the misfortune where they live. Her heart is failing now and mine is breaking.