Vaccine Equity: How Developing African Nations Are Being Left Behind, Again

Vaccine Equity: How Developing African Nations Are Being Left Behind, Again

Abuja, Nigeria: The discovery of the coronavirus vaccine is without a doubt, one of the greatest biological feats of our time. Within one year of the coronavirus being declared a pandemic and halting normalcy as we knew it, its vaccines proving over 90% effective have been developed by some of the smartest minds in our age and are now being administered to individuals across the world. Pharmaceutical giants Moderna and Pfizer are leading the roll outs, with their vaccines circulating across the U.S. the longest, and both requiring patients to receive two vaccine shots for full protection against COVID-19.

The development of these highly effective vaccines has translated into a collective sigh of relief from governments, companies and communities. Major news outlets are holding daily sessions to debate the logistics of delivering the vaccines and all its attendant issues. For many, this vaccine means only one thing: the pandemic will be defeated at long last and return some degree of sanity and normalcy.

This might be the predominant feeling in the richer and more developed nations but in countries like mine, not quite. To be clear, we want this pandemic to end quickly and for several good reasons, one of which is the fact that our countries are not equipped to protect us from its ravages. Our enthusiasm is however tamed because with this roll out of vaccines, our scary reality is watching wealthier nations speed up the vaccinations of its citizens leaving the rest of us behind. For instance, did you know that as at November 2020, some governments had already negotiated pre-purchase agreements for almost 7.5 billion doses, 51% of which had been reserved by wealthy countries representing only 14% of the global population? According to People’s Vaccine Alliance, throughout January and February, rich nations, on average, vaccinated one person every second, while the majority of the poorest nations had yet to give a single dose.

Vaccine Equity: How Developing African Nations Are Being Left Behind, Again
COVID-19 is being rolled out in wealthier nations at a faster rate compared with developing countries. Photo: Hakan Nural.

Put differently, for people in countries like mine, the pandemic seems far from over because the creation and dissemination of the vaccines have raised a whole new issue of vaccine nationalism. This term refers to the practice where nations adopt a “my country and nowhere else” approach to the vaccine distribution and even though a country should get as much of the vaccines for its citizens as possible, this practice is harmful because it is nothing more than an excuse for richer nations to hoard the vaccines that can help us all. Much like the way folks hoarded toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic, the problem with this approach is that it is short-sighted and wrong on many levels.

Now I agree that our leaders are not blameless here. While the rest of the world swung into action to develop a vaccine, most African nations for one, dithered and were more concerned with whatever they felt was more important to them. Fast forward to a year later and the richer countries who made all the efforts to create an effective vaccine have succeeded. African nations are thus yet again, left at the mercy of the altruism of the West.

Related Post: Why Does Africa Have So Many Problems?

Regardless of the foregoing though, some of these poorer countries have begun to actively seek out the vaccines for their citizens because as of March 2021, Nigeria for instance has acquired five million doses. This might seem impressive until you realise that Nigeria is a country of roughly 200 million individuals (for some contrast, California with a population of 30 million has administered 14.5 million doses of the COVID vaccine). Furthermore, not only is it more difficult for countries like mine to obtain their vaccines, most times, we have to pay a higher price for them. For instance, South Africa is paying $5.25 for a dose of AstraZeneca vaccine while the European Union is paying only $2.15 for the same vaccine.

Mass vaccination news makes the front page of a newspaper in Honolulu. Photo: Unsplash.

The only sustainable path that can propel us all forward here is the concept of vaccine equity; yet another phrase I have learnt because of this pandemic. In the lead up to the rollout of the vaccines, some organisations have made attempts to ensure that the vaccine will reach everyone. COVAX, for instance, is a program developed by a coalition of organisations including Gavi, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, established to ensure equitable vaccine access for every country in the world. Regardless of these attempts however, countries are still free to make their peculiar contractual agreements with the vaccine companies. This is generally what the wealthier nations have done to corner the majority of the vaccines produced so far for their citizens only, equity be damned.

Related Post: Can Developing Countries in Africa Really Afford Pandemic Lockdowns?

Now, if we cannot achieve vaccine equity because it is the right thing to do, then at least let the richer countries relent for their own selfish interests. This virus has shown that we are only as strong as our weakest link and so when it comes down to it, no country is truly safe until we are all safe. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, if wealthier countries achieve complete vaccination by the middle of this year – a goal that many countries are striving for – and developing countries manage to vaccinate only half of their populations, the global economic loss would amount to around US$4 trillion.


Along with the issue of non-availability of the vaccine, many African nations face another obstacle; fear and distrust. African nations might stand to benefit enormously from the availability of the COVID vaccine but they remain distrustful of a medical establishment with a history that includes the Tuskegee syphilis study and countless medical experiments on African people. In 1996, Pfizer pharmaceuticals conducted drug and vaccine trials that led to the death of 11 children.

Many anti-vaxxers have held on to this as a shining example of the dangers of these vaccines; a situation further exacerbated by an even deeper distrust of our own governments. The running joke on this in Nigeria is that a government that hoarded COVID-19 food palliatives meant for the people cannot be relied upon to provide life-saving vaccines where needed. Against this background, any efficiency shown by the government in the distribution of the vaccine is interpreted as suspicious.

African nations have not been as deadly hit by the pandemic as far as victims and casualties. In Nigeria for instance, bar some institutional changes, most citizens have carried on without much consideration for the virus. Since we can’t all be realistically vaccinated, a response to this will be to shrug it off and live without the vaccine even though we know deep down that this shrug is not much of an option.

During the early stages of lockdowns, I wrote about racism in the time of a pandemic and that is still relevant here. Every African knows that if we fail to get vaccinated, we will be scapegoated for the pandemic. The point of this article is simple: with no clear end in sight, the urgent race for a vaccine is on across the world. The global race to rollout more vaccines in advanced economies are largely outpacing those in emerging and developing economies. Clearly, this pandemic affected every part of the world. I can only hope that when it comes to dissemination, the leaders of our world can map out some better criteria than “who is richer” for these vaccines.

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Cover image by Daniel Schludi.

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