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'Vaccine privilege' could haunt the West

Cai Nebe
Cai Nebe
February 3, 2021

The early development of COVID-19 vaccines should have helped Western nations gain more influence over Africa. But from an ethical and organizational standpoint, they have blown it spectacularly, writes DW's Cai Nebe.

Workers load cargo into a truck.
Africa has been largely left to scramble for COVID-19 vaccines Image: via REUTERS

BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, Oxford-AstraZeneca, CureVac — a formidable combination of vaccines developed in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in record time to save the world from the coronavirus pandemic. That is, as long as the West can stop squabbling in the first place.

Developing the coronavirus vaccines in under a year and making them available is, without doubt, an incredible achievement. However, it brings with it a certain "vaccine privilege." The EU, for example, has outstripped Africa in buying up coronavirus vaccines, despite being home to a small fraction compared to Africa's population

The West, specifically Europe and the United States, is not exactly new to being privileged compared to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. For decades, the West has had the upper hand in trade, political power and military might.

West no longer the best

But this COVID-19 pandemic is different for two reasons.

For the first time in living memory, the West is facing a health crisis on par with, and in some cases worse than, what has been experienced on multiple occasions across the African continent.

A woman holds up examples of the Russian and Chinese vaccine
Vaccines from Russia and China are competing strongly with Western developed vaccines in Africa Image: Oliver Bunic/AFP/Getty Images

The reaction in Europe, at least outwardly, has been to pull up the drawbridge and "secure the fortress," even to the disadvantage of EU members. Remember the scramble for personal protective equipment (PPE) in 2020? Travel bans where EU members abruptly closed internal Schengen borders — one of the bloc's cherished accomplishments? The naming of the "South African variant," the "Brazilian variant," and the "UK variant"? — Former US President Trump was criticized for referring to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the "China virus."

Secondly, for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West is in competition with other powers for dictating the world's political and economic trajectory. While some may argue China, Russia and India have not suffered as much, these countries' attitude has been markedly different. It speaks volumes that China has offered to make its SinoVac vaccine available to African countries. Guinea, Argentina, and Chile are already using Russia's Sputnik V vaccine. And while only a fool would believe Russia and China's intentions are completely magnanimous in sharing their vaccine privilege with developing countries, actions are speaking louder than words.

Tough timing and the 'me first' syndrome

Perhaps the vaccine rollout came at a bad time: the United States faced an insurrection at its own Capitol; the EU and the UK were embroiled in a bitter Brexit divorce. Maybe China — with its low infection rate — had a head start allowing it the flexibility to offer vaccines abroad.

Infographic of EU vaccine orders

But there is never a perfect time to have a global pandemic, something sub-Saharan African countries are all too aware of.  For many, COVID-19 joins a bunch of pre-existing maladies like poor public health infrastructure, chronic unemployment, and wilting economies.  Tanzanian President John Magufuli went as far as to say his country doesn't plan to order vaccines — an extreme and likely misguided directive, but popular in the East African nation.

Medical assistance in Africa normally entails begging the West for help and entering into a relationship of dependence. A Rwandan former health minister, Agnes Binagwaho, best summed it up when referring to the EU: "Be frank and say, 'My people first.' Don't lie to me and say we'll be equal."

Kenyan Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe added it would be "foolish" to depend on Western nations.

Kenyan Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe
Kenya's Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe has been critical of the West's hoarding of coronavirus vaccinesImage: Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba

More divisions, no equality

Those hoping the COVID-19 pandemic would be a great leveler between the rich and emerging countries have been sorely disappointed.

If ever there was a moment revealing the EU especially had washed its hands of leading the charge against COVID-19, it was the embarrassing wrangling between the bloc and vaccine producer AstraZeneca. Countries not even getting a sniff at vaccinations watched in utter bemusement as wealthy European countries squabbled over access to millions of vaccines. The back-and-forth threatened to descend into childish mudslinging matches.

The vaccine rollout should have been and could have been the best of a unified West reclaiming lost global clout. But instead, the rollout has been divisive, nationalistic, despite the EU's efforts to show unity by ordering vaccines as a bloc.

Debates will rage about whether the vaccine rollout in the West and EU countries was successful or if Western nations could have done more to share their vaccine privilege. Those arguing it is not the West's job to save the world from a public health disaster should take note of China's actions: while not accepting responsibility for causing the pandemic, or in some cases denying the virus originated there, China is doing a much better job of appearing to solve the pandemic.

It seems the West has treated vaccination as a right for itself and a privilege for the rest. This is a mistake. After this debacle, it's difficult to imagine African countries turning to, or trusting, the West in public health matters again.