The coronavirus pandemic has not only exposed the global North-South divide — experts in South Africa and Kenya believe vaccine challenges on the continent are significantly different from elsewhere.
A new wave of COVID-19 infections across Africa and the inequitable distribution of vaccines have further highlighted the multifaceted inequalities both within the continent and across the globe. While in some parts of the world, the challenge is overcoming vaccine hesitancy, in others, the problem is getting the vaccines to the needy, explains Nicholas Crips, South Africa’s deputy director general at the country’s national Department of Health.
“We should be over 250,000 [vaccinations] a day. We have the vaccine,” Crips told DW. “We have the capability of vaccinating, mass vaccination sites, private vaccination in pharmacies and other sites, public clinics that are vaccinating, but they are all reporting that they are not full and they could be seeing a lot more people,” saidCrips.
In Kenya, however, the rapid spread of the highly infectious delta variant coupled with a lack of adequate vaccines for those willing to receive the jab is a woeful story.
Monica Wanjiku, a Kenyan who in three weeks lost three family members to the virus, told DW that she was devastated: “My heart is in a lot of pain. I don’t know what to say, but if they had been vaccinated, I think even those who were sick could have healed.”
The disparity in vaccination rate
While statistics show that South Africa has vaccinated about 10 million (16.67%), of its 60 million people, in Kenya, only just over 2 million (3.5%) of the 52.5 million population have received the jab.
South African officials say they have devised strategies to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
“We have a lot of vaccination sites. Unfortunately, there are not enough people arriving at those sites. We are doing door-to-door work. We are going to various communities. My message to all of them is that vaccines do save lives,” David Makhura, premier of South Africa’s Gauteng province, told DW.
The efficacy of vaccines against the coronavirus is something that many in Kenya, such as Wanjiku, will be happy to attest to. Her nephew James Mwangi also lost his father and uncle to COVID. “We are traumatized because it’s not so easy. Some people you were with two weeks ago, they had no issue — then all of a sudden, in a span of less than 10 days, they are all gone.”
Vaccine hesitancy — an endemic problem
For countries such as South Africa with enough vaccines, the challenge remains the rising tide of vaccine hesitancy. Fueled largely by misinformation and growing anti-vaccine campaigns on social media, some South Africans have decided against taking the vaccine.
“Why do I need a vaccine when there are natural remedies that can heal us? And also, I have seen the after-effects of these vaccines. Some of their hands and shoulders get swollen. Some of them even get sick,” one resident of Johannesburg told DW.
Good information should counter such ignorance about the vaccine, argues Linda-Gail Bekker, a professor of medicine at the University of Cape Town. “This is a legitimate and very effective way to prevent severe disease and death,” she told DW.
Inequity in distribution
Besides the problem of vaccine hesitancy, however, the biggest challenge facing African countries like Kenya is the lack of vaccines to meet the needs of their population.
While many rich nations have inoculated more than half of their populations, with plans for booster jabs underway in some, developing countries are seriously lagging, said James Nduati, a member of the Kenyan parliament.
“We put in money to buy vaccines, but one of the challenges with the vaccines is that they are not available anywhere. So globally, African citizens have been treated as second-class citizens,” Nduati said.
Samuel Obiero, a Nairobi resident, shares a similar sentiment. “They have protected their people and their citizens, but they have neglected these needy countries like Africa,” said Obiero.
Even health experts like Lolem Ngong at the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), Kenya, feel that the inequity in vaccine distribution is morally unacceptable. “We cannot start administering booster shots when some of us don’t even know if we will be able to get a second shot. It’s such a really great injustice, and, unfortunately, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) hands are also tied,” stressed Ngong.
The WHO must step in
Like many Africans, Faith Chebet, a Nairobi resident, believes that both the WHO and the rich countries need to help the poorer ones struggling to get enough doses. “They have an obligation to help, since we all need the vaccines,” Chebet told DW.
For a country like South Africa, with over 2.6 million people infected and 77,000 deaths, the argument is that at least 40 million people need to get inoculated to reach herd immunity.
For others, such as Kenya and other low-income countries, the future seems challenging. They face a race against time as they battle between the two extremes of a highly infectious delta variant and the lack of vaccines.
Felix Maringa and Thuso Khumalo contributed to this article.