What you need to know:
- Even states with relatively good infrastructure like South Africa have mismanaged the pandemic.
- The levels of incompetence rival those of disgraced former US President Donald Trump.
Some of the most impoverished – and desperate – people live on the African continent. They are everywhere, from the rural countryside to large modern metropolises such as Nairobi, Cairo, and Johannesburg.
Most of our people live pitiable lives. Many, perhaps most, can’t afford one solid meal a day. Deadly pestilences like malaria afflict many. There’s unacceptably high infant mortality. Health infrastructure, data collection, and educational institutions are woefully inadequate.
In the midst of this privation, narrow elites have gluttonously gobbled up – in salaries and corruption – large chunks of GDP. Covid has ravaged Africa in this wanton state. The biggest sins have been Covid denialism and vaccine hesitancy by governments. It’s an atrocity when dictatorship and illiberalism collide with ignorance and superstition.
Even states with relatively good infrastructure like South Africa have mismanaged the pandemic. The levels of incompetence rival those of disgraced former US President Donald Trump.
However, the US has the resources to get the virus under control despite the heavy loss of human life because it has the wealth to do so, and is the one making vaccines. Africans will be the last people vaccinated because of the greed of wealthy states who are hoarding vaccines for their citizens.
But that’s not the only reason Africans will bring up the tail. Several governments haven’t done anything to contain the virus, or procure the vaccines. It’s a double-whammy of marginalisation and homegrown stupidity.
Virus is mutating
It's terrifying, the virus is mutating very fast. The three most contagious mutants are South African, British, and Brazilian. I am sure there are others, and there will be many more in the months ahead.
This means countries must be constantly doing genetic sequencing to find out which mutants are circulating within their borders. This is important because the virus is threatening to outrace the currently available and widely accepted vaccines. The three clear leaders Pfizer, Moderna, and now Johnson & Johnson vaccines. AstraZeneca has raised some efficacy issues, especially with the South African strain. Even so, it’s good news on the vaccine front. I don’t yet trust Russia’s or China’s vaccines.
Vaccine acquisition, availability, and rollout are huge challenges and require sophisticated logistics, as we’ve seen in the US and other Western states. Pfizer and Moderna require a two-shot regimen with an efficacy of 95 per cent. Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine with an 85 per cent efficacy and requiring only normal refrigeration is most suitable for Africa.
Pfizer’s vaccine is unsuited for Africa because it requires refrigeration at abnormally cold temperatures. The storage and transportation infrastructure for Pfizer’s vaccine is absent in Africa.
We’ve questions of vaccine equity and prioritisation. This isn’t easy to sort out, as we’ve seen in America. I got my Pfizer vaccine because I am teaching. Priority is given to persons with comorbidities, frontline workers, and those over 65.
These challenges are compounded in African states with poor leadership. By the time the vaccines get there, new mutants may render them nugatory. Which means everyone in the world has to start afresh with boosters, or entirely new vaccines.
A prolonged pandemic will completely devastate the most vulnerable economies. That’s why African states need to do everything to slow down the spread and acquire vaccines. Herd immunity will not simply be achieved by doing nothing. People need to wear masks in public and in congregate settings, socially distance, and practise good hygiene, even when vaccination starts.
In my view, the two major challenges over which African states have full control are Covid denialism and vaccine hesitancy. Covid denialism is the more dangerous of the two. That’s because top state officials perpetuate it.
One of the first denialists was Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza whom the pandemic took in a heartbeat. Some, like Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli – a scientist – declared his country “Covid free.” Implausibly, he said prayer would cure Covid and asked penitents to crowd in churches and mosques. He forbade the wearing of masks and other Covid protocols. It was unbelievable.
Mr Magufuli didn’t start reconsidering his own Covid denialism until senior Tanzanian officials, including military generals, a Vice President, and several ministers were taken by the virus. He’s refused to order vaccines, instead asking people to ingest lemon and garlic concoctions. It’s a tragic repeat of the Maji Maji Rebellion. Graves are filling up. Tanzanians are going insane.
Lawyers have publicly criticised Mr Magufuli and called on him to change course. He needs to model good Covid protocols himself by issuing clear guidelines, wearing a mask in public, ordering vaccines, and mandating social distancing. This is the only way to effectively combat Covid among the public until vaccines are available.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua