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Africa Should Bargain Hard for COVID Vaccine Equity: Lessons from Indonesia during Avian Flu

The Republic of Congo received just over 300,000 doses of the COVID vaccines through the COVAX Facility in August 2021. The international COVAX initiative aimed at guaranteeing global access to the vaccines, recently announced that it was being forced to slash planned deliveries to Africa, by around 150 million doses this year. The scheme is now expected to deliver 470 million doses through the end of December. These will be enough to protect just 17 per cent of the continent, far below the 40 per cent target, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Credit: UNICEF/Aimable Twiringiyima

MANOA, Hawaii / TAIPEI, Taiwan, Dec 6 2021 (IPS) - Many countries around the world have punished most of the African continent for the scientific discovery of the Omicron variant through the imposition of travel bans.

These travel bans are more injury upon the injury of low vaccination in Africa. Even well-intentioned rallying phrases such as “vaccine apartheid” or “vaccine equity” still lack the moral weight, indignation, and urgency that we should all feel, no matter which country we live. Words fail us.

How can it be that—even now—vast swaths of a continent go without access to these lifesaving vaccines? How is this situation even possible, let alone acceptable? For sure, there’s not been enough vaccines arriving to African countries.

Flowery donor pledges gone unfilled are no better than empty promises. Some say it’s the monopolized production from a vaccine company based outside of Africa or intellectual property issues.

Others cite supply chain and cold chain problems, the need for refrigeration, and lack of electricity. Still others note vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. Throw in “corruption” and “poor governance.” Yadda yadda yadda.

Let us please transfer all the energy spent on the manufacturing of excuses to create ideas for how we’ll get vaccines to Africa.

One thing we should have learned during COVID-19 is that so-called “leaders” are amazing at coming up with excuses for things not getting done. Let’s remind ourselves of the HIV pandemic when world “leaders” were hesitating to distribute antiretroviral treatment to so-called “developing countries.”

There was even an administrator of USAID, supposedly a leading aid agency, who conveniently came up with a racist excuse that the reason why Africans couldn’t get treatment against HIV was because they couldn’t tell time.

Excuses easily come out of the human mouth. Let us please transfer all the energy spent on the manufacturing of excuses to create ideas for how we’ll get vaccines to Africa.

If Africa can’t get the vaccines it needs, perhaps Africa should take a play from the Indonesian playbook during the 2007 avian flu.

The Indonesian Government argued that its decision in January 2007 to stop sending avian flu samples (H5N1 virus) to the WHO’s reference labs was justifiable because the samples provided freely from lower-income countries were used by companies in higher-income countries to develop vaccines that the lower-income countries couldn’t afford and couldn’t benefit from.

Indonesia wanted a guarantee that it would benefit from the samples it provided. After months of withholding the samples, WHO and the Indonesian government eventually came to an agreement and changed the terms of reference for sample sharing.

As Sedyaningsih et al noted in 2008, “This event demonstrates the unresolved imbalance between the affluent high-tech countries and the poor agriculture-based countries.” Their words still hold true more than a decade later.

When dealing with those who are habituated to a “me first” mentality, you must negotiate and bargain hard. African countries trying to gain support through an idealistic notion of global solidarity will fail unless applying “shrewd business practices.” Not just African countries, but the whole world will fail.

So, negotiate hard. Know what your opponent wants the most, and don’t give them what they want so easily till you get what you need. Empty promises and excuses won’t stop COVID-19, but hard bargaining might.

Victoria Y. Fan, ScD, is an associate professor and interim director of the Center on Aging at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a non-resident fellow at the Center for Global Development. Steve Kuo, MD, PhD, served as director of Taiwan Centers for Disease Control including during SARS, and most recently he was the president of National Yang Ming University, now National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University.


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