Uhuru blames ‘vaccine apartheid’, India crisis for slowed jabs

Covid-19 vaccine Uhuru Kenyatta

President Uhuru Kenyatta takes the Covid-19 vaccine at State House, Nairobi, on March 26, 2021.

Photo credit: PSCU

President Uhuru Kenyatta has blamed the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccination on what he called vaccine apartheid in the global market, saying it had hurt the continent.

Before the vaccines were made available, he said, African countries including Kenya were ready to roll them out but developed countries started “hoarding” them.

In an interview with senior editors on Monday at State House, Nairobi, President Kenyatta said working with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa and Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) Félix Tshisekedi, they made early arrangements with the Serum Institute of India to supply Africa with vaccines only for the developed countries to leave the continent to its own devices.

“We were ready to roll out the vaccines as soon as they became available. We had actually contracted the Serum Institute of India that was supposed to be the main supplier and it was set because of its largest facility,” he said.

“It was going to be the main instrument of making sure that Africa was on the frontline of receiving vaccines as soon as they became available.”

Mr Kenyatta lamented that despite those preparations, it is Africa that is now lagging in vaccinating its people.

“It is most unfortunate that despite all of that, when vaccines came online, the developed countries exercised what we are unashamedly calling vaccine apartheid because despite all the arrangements and agreements we had in place, vaccine nationalism came into effect. They decided to hoard and look after themselves and ignore the rest of the world,” he said.

He also said the second wave that hit India dealt African countries a big blow, with the Asian country halting vaccine exports and choosing instead to produce doses for its own population.

“It was a double blow for us on the African continent because on top of that, the facility that had been contracted to supply us, India itself that was part of us said they were no longer going to supply us until they supply their own people when they were hit by the second wave,” he said.

“So we were left stranded despite the fact that we had put resources in, mobilised all resources that were necessary to begin immediate rollout.”

In March, India said it was “recalibrating the exports” in a bid to balance its domestic demand with the international orders.

Kenya, and a host of other low and middle-income countries, depended on the United Nations-backed Covax facility, a multi-organisation global initiative that supplies Covid-19 vaccines.

Covax is the biggest customer of the Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer.

India decided to put controls on vaccine exports from the Serum Institute. The controls were imposed “due to India’s surging domestic demand”, throwing into doubt deliveries to dozens of countries, including Kenya.

“Given our current manufacturing capacity and requirements of national vaccination programmes, there may be a need to calibrate the supply schedules from time to time,” an Indian government official told the UK’s Financial Times newspaper in confidence at the time.

And now, Mr Kenyatta said Africa is looking for alternatives to ensure that supplies of vaccines are not disrupted, noting that the continent was let down by the Asian country.

“We are now looking at South Africa, which is coming on board. We are working with a fill-and-form facility here in Kenya. We are hopefully going to get a steady supply of our own vaccine,” he said.

“And hopefully a month or two later, will be able to meet our 10 million target of the most vulnerable, which will be a key indicator for us to fully open the economy and we are hopeful to achieve it in the shortest time possible.”

He vowed that he will ensure no one dies in Kenya because of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that containment measures will be enforced to save lives.

“I will never do anything in my view that will jeopardise the life of a Kenyan. The life of a Kenyan is greater than anything else. Let us withstand the challenge and be alive. We shall overcome those challenges tomorrow but a life lost today shall never be recovered,” the President said.

“So my focus is to ensure that I protect and safeguard the lives of the people of Kenya. That is the thrust and core of the oath I took when I swore to take over this office.”

Vaccines will always be free in Kenya, he said, and will remain voluntary, contradicting orders from Head of Public Service Joseph Kinyua that unvaccinated civil servants will face disciplinary actions.

“Vaccines are going to be free because we want to ensure that there is no element or capacity of people taking advantage of this shortfall for making deals here and there. But I truly would encourage especially those who are in the most vulnerable bracket of 45 years and above (and) those with comorbidities that it is essential that you be vaccinated,” he said.

“We are not going to force anybody. It will be an individual’s decision whether you want to take it or not.”