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Coronavirus vaccines could bring Africa and China closer

February 5, 2021

To many Africans, Europe has been greedy, hoarding vaccinations produced in the West to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The repercussion is that Africa could cozy up further to a generous Asian giant — China.

A Chinese doctor wearing a mask speaking remotely with African medical experts
Chinese medical experts have been advising Africans on how to fight the coronavirus pandemicImage: imago images/Xinhua

Nothing in the world right now is in as much demand as the coronavirus vaccine. The available BioNtech-Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines come in short supply and have been purchased by countries with the thickest wallets.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, an NGO network, reports that rich nations, representing only 14% of the world's population, have bought up more than half of the most promising vaccines. On the other hand, Africa is at the end of the queue. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, vaccines will not be available in most African countries until April 2022 at the earliest.

While Europeans in the EU complain about the slow rollout of the vaccines, many Africans do not even see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Frustration with the West

Africa has pre-ordered about 900 million doses so far. The African Center for Disease Control predicts the continent will need at least 1.5 billion doses to vaccinate 60% of the population. Distribution systems could cost up to $10 billion (€8.3 billion) to purchase and set up.

An airport driver driving off a huge load of China Aid equipment
China was the first country to send aid packages including PPEs to African countries at the beginning of the pandemicImage: imago images/X. Zheng

"We have to be independent as a continent and country when it comes to vaccines and pharmaceutical products," Kenya's Minister of Health, Mutahi Kagwe, told DW. "It is foolish to rely on Western nations for medical issues. We don't always want to be the last people on the planet."

Former Rwandan Health Minister Agnes Binagwaho has a similar message to the West. "Be honest and say, 'My people first.' Don't lie to us and say we are equal," she told DW.

The first doses arrive

South Africa has received a million doses from AstraZeneca this week. Rwanda has ordered a million doses from US pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, with the first shipment expected to arrive in February. And Uganda expects its first doses of Moderna, Pfizer, and AstraZeneca in April.

The COVAX program — an initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the vaccination alliance GAVI — is committed to the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in poor countries. It hopes to deliver at least 1.3 billion doses to 92 low-income countries by the end of the year. But it can only buy vaccines approved by the WHO. So far, this only includes the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.

Looking to the Far East

China plans to fill the gap. The Asian giant, with deep pockets and generosity, has already signaled its intentions of becoming the first global powerhouse to deliver free vaccines to Africa.

It could be purely for humanitarian reasons. And even if it is, one thing is certain – Africa's vaccine debacle will leverage its trade and development interests to the Chinese.

Kenya's Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe
Kenya's Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe has called on Africa to step up on vaccine and drugs supplyImage: Getty Images/AFP/Y. Chiba

At the moment, the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm is not in major use in Africa. And even if Pfizer suddenly had enough vaccines available, it wouldn't solve Africa's problem. "These vaccines were not made for developing countries. They have to be frozen," Eric Olander, founder of the information platform China-Africa-Project, said. 

"These vaccines are in many ways useless to most developing countries because the infrastructure to store them is not in place," Olander told DW. 

On the other hand, China and Russia emphasize that their vaccines are already available and can easily be stored in a common refrigerator or freezer. As early as May, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to make coronavirus vaccines available primarily to the Global South.

Xi Jiping, Vladimir Putin G 20-Gipfel
Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jiping have touted their vaccines as Africa-friendlyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Europe and America are concentrating on themselves, and China has stepped in and invested a lot to get into the African vaccination market," said Robert Kappel, Africa researcher at the University of Leipzig. The EU had given the WHO a lot of money to secure vaccines for African countries, "but China is all ready for the vaccine distribution," Kappel told DW.

'A friend in need is a friend indeed'

Despite the African continent's multibillion-dollar close ties with China, Western nations including Europe and the United States have always remained closer at heart with Africans.

But the hoarding of vaccines by the West could become a deal-breaker – the last straw for that matter. The fast pace at which the Sino-Africa relationship grew in the past decades and the reliability that China has shown as a development partner, delivering vaccines and saving millions of African lives could prove to Africa the old saying — a friend in need is a friend indeed.

Even though China has been criticized for pursuing a so-called neo-colonialist agenda in Africa, the coronavirus vaccine assistance could change all that.

"If China managed to give vaccines and save a large part of the African population, do you think they will see China negatively?" Rwanda's ex-minister Binagwaho asks, rhetorically.

"This is an opportunity to literally pull the rug out from under the feet of rivals USA and Europe," Eric Olander said.  "Why shouldn't China take advantage of it?"

This article was adapted from German by Abu-Bakarr Jalloh.

Rosie Birchard, Mariel Müller and Alexandra von Nahmen contributed to this article

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German-born journalist.
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