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Vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa is urgent

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By PARFAIT ANYANGA

The Group of Seven (G7), at the G7 Summit in Cornwall, recently committed to immediately share at least 870 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, supporting global access and helping to end the acute phase of the pandemic.

The G-7 leaders also reaffirmed their support for the UN-led equitable vaccine distribution initiative Covax. Though the move is a step in the right direction and has been welcomed, a global vaccination plan is still needed.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has painted a bleak picture of the past year during which more than three million have died from the Covid-19 globally. The socioeconomic impact has been immense and around 120 million people have fallen into extreme poverty and the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs have been lost.

Mr Guterres has called for an enormous push at the highest political level to reverse these dangerous trends, prevent successive waves of infection, avoid a lengthy global recession and get back on track to fulfil the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

In the Horn of Africa, against the most pessimistic projections, the worst health impact seems to have been mitigated, at least for the time being. Despite fears of all-out havoc, given the region’s weak health systems, proactive early prevention measures applied region-wide succeeded in protecting people from Covid-19’s most immediate devastating health consequences.

However, Covid-19 remains a lethal threat that requires continuous vigilance and engagement in a region already battling numerous threats and dire structural deficiencies. While reported numbers of infections are relatively low, these figures are likely inaccurate due to limited testing, often concentrated in capitals, and the lack of reliable data.

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In recent months, Covid-19 has gained speed and strength in countries such as Sudan and Uganda. These countries, as well as others in the region are facing a surge in cases, mainly due to the limited amount of vaccines available and being poorly equipped in terms of safety measures. This needs to be addressed if the global community wants to effectively eradicate Covid-19.

The pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing challenges and will have grave and long-term socio-economic implications, making it ever harder for countries in the region to achieve pre-pandemic objectives and the Sustainable Development Goals. Covid-19 has reinforced tendencies to further shrink political space and derail democratic processes, challenged the implementation of reforms and peace agreements and slowed down peace talks. Lockdowns reduced economic activity and constrained the operations of governmental institutions and aid agencies, further straining service delivery.

Covid-19 also compounded the dire effects of desert locust invasions, floods and droughts in a region where nearly 28 million people were already food insecure before, now numbering up to around 33 million people. Cross-border populations, who experience more significant movement and lower access to health care, were particularly vulnerable to virus transmission and border restrictions.

Taking advantage of the socio-economic and security situation, armed groups, such as al Shabaab, have scaled up their activities. The pandemic has also had a direct bearing on electoral processes and decisions on postponing or proceeding with elections have raised complicated political, legal, human rights and public health challenges in several countries.

Reaching out to women and youth during the current lockdown has presented more challenges and effects from Covid-19 are further removing potential women leaders from opportunities to engage in political and public affairs and decision-making due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Covid-19 has deepened existing gender inequalities and threatened hard-won gains made in women’s participation in all areas of social, economic and political life, including peace processes.

The severe impact of the pandemic on young people is contributing to increased risks. Loss of opportunities for education, employment and income have driven a sense of alienation, marginalisation and mental health stress that can be subsequently exploited by criminals and extremists. Women and young people must be part of Africa’s plans to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, which is feeding factors driving conflict on the continent.

Panacea of pandemic

Though the emergence of vaccines provides a light at the end of the tunnel, there remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines. More than 700 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 87 per cent have gone to high-income or upper-middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.2 percent.

The pandemic has shown that global manufacturing capacity and supply chains are not sufficient to deliver vaccines and other essential health products quickly and equitably to where they are needed most. That is why building up vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa, which is experiencing the slowest rollout of vaccination campaigns in the world, is critical.

It has been estimated that the pandemic has caused 100 million Africans to fall into poverty and has led to the loss of 30 million jobs. But, if the continent can seize on medical manufacturing, it has been predicted that six million jobs could be created.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has been sagely advocating for the whole vaccine supply chain — syringes, plastics, containers for the vaccines — to be produced on the continent, as permitted by the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement. On the continent, which is home to 1.3 billion people, 99 per cent of vaccines are imported.

In light of inequitable access to vaccines, the funding gap of Covax should be closed and debt suspension and relief should be prioritised.

Parfait Anyanga is the UN Special Envoy



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