Robert Rotberg, Founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness, 22 March 2021
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently gave an important warning to the world: “Unless and until everyone in the world is vaccinated, then no one is fully safe,” he said. “If the virus is out there and continuing to proliferate, it’s also going to be mutating.” These fine words, and similar ones from U.S. President Joe Biden, talk the good talk. But when exactly are the United States and Canada going to get serious about releasing large amounts of vaccine to needy countries in the Global South? The U.S. has recently offered to send 2.5 million doses to Mexico (along with 1.5 million doses for Canada) but much more needs to be done.
The political dangers of transferring vaccines, even surplus quantities, are real due to potential backlash from citizens, but the danger of inaction is even greater. Mr. Blinken correctly noted that the spread of mutated and mutating coronaviruses from, say Brazil (where the new Manaus strain is deadly and was found last week in Massachusetts) and South Africa (where its lethal version has already been detected in several U.S. states), are clear and present dangers to curbing the pandemic in North America. Canadians and Americans cannot consider themselves protected, even with widespread vaccinations, until the rest of the world is reasonably well vaccinated.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit South Africa harder than the rest of Africa, with 1.5 million cases and 51,000 deaths. So far fatalities in countries to the north have been lower, with several reporting unexpectedly few deaths from COVID-19. But, within the past two months, those mortality totals have begun to rise, with many being attributed to the insidious proliferation of mutants coming from South Africa. Even in thinly populated and hitherto spared places such as Namibia and Botswana, death rates now spike upward. Malawi and Zimbabwe have lost prominent politicians, and Tanzania’s president, who denied that COVID-19 was real and said prayer would defeat it, died last week in a hospital in Dar es Salaam. Reports claimed he was seriously ill with coronavirus.
In many African countries, mortuaries are overflowing and hospitals are crowded. Experts think that mortality figures undercount fatalities from coronavirus in most African countries by at least 50 per cent. Even if half of all of Africa’s 1.4 billion people are under 25 years old and therefore succumb less readily to the coronavirus than their elders, until vaccines reach all adults there will still be abundant opportunities for mutations to emerge dangerous to Africans and, in time, to ourselves.
Chinese and Russian vaccines are available in some southern countries, as well as other vaccines from the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, but all of these international efforts constitute but a comparative trickle, if set against pressing needs. Kenya’s Health Minister estimates that it will take two years to vaccinate 60 per cent of his 55 million people. Even if the rate of vaccine arrival in Africa and in deficient South American countries accelerates, only an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of adults in Africa and South America will have been vaccinated by the end of 2021.
As Mr. Blinken reminds us, countries with weak medical systems hosting large numbers of unvaccinated inhabitants put everyone at risk, even if they have been vaccinated. This is because some new variants may be able to infect people who have been vaccinated, leaving us vulnerable to new, uncontrolled outbreaks.
Mr. Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have promised to provide vaccines to parts of the world that today remain at the back of the vaccine receiving queue. But later (or eventually) is not good enough. We should make supplies available for humanitarian reasons, and to counter Chinese and Russian soft power gains in the Global South, but also because doing so will help stop coronavirus mutations before they arise. Healthy young North Americans should not be vaccinated before high-risk groups in poorer countries.
One of the best ways to help southern countries is to empower them with the ability to make their own supply. The U.S. and Canada should cease opposing the easing of patent rules on COVID-19 vaccines. Doing so would enable poor countries to produce their own vaccines and get everyone, regardless of where they live, closer to our shared goal of putting the pandemic behind us.