As the highly contagious Delta variant drives a global surge of COVID-19 cases, Africa is being hit especially hard. On July 15, the World Health Organization reported that the continent recorded one million new cases in the past month, its fastest increase since the start of the pandemic and part of “a uniquely steep and unbroken nine-week surge.” As of July 30, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Africa reached 6.6 million, with the worst-affected countries being South Africa (2.4 million), Morocco (607,000), Tunisia, (583,000), Egypt (284,000) and Ethiopia (280,000). Namibia and Tunisia are now reporting more deaths per capita than any other country in the world.
Slow vaccination progress
Compounding the recent Delta-driven surge are perilously low vaccination rates across the continent. Developing countries around the globe have faced challenges acquiring vaccines for their populations, and nowhere is this global inequality more evident than in Africa. As of July 29, just 1.6% of Africans were fully vaccinated, compared to roughly half of Americans and Europeans. “There is no other word for it but a betrayal of trust, the consequences of which are now playing out in Africa, in lives lost that should not have been, had the wealthiest countries allowed poorer countries access to their fair share of vaccines,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told The Washington Post on Friday.
In many ways, Africa was excluded from the vaccine race before it even began. When the first vaccines were being developed, wealthy countries made deals directly with the companies producing them, giving them a disproportionately large share of the early supply. Most African nations could not afford their own vaccines and had to rely on donated shots from COVAX, a WHO-backed initiative aimed at funding equitable global vaccine distribution. But COVAX faced the same problem as the countries it was intended to serve: its limited funds were not enough to compete with rich nations for contracts with vaccine manufacturers. As a result, COVAX has fallen drastically behind in its bid to supply 2 billion doses to countries in need by the end of 2021. Seven months in, it has delivered 154 million shots — just 7.7% of its goal.
What does the future hold?
The inequalities present in the global response to the pandemic are unlikely to change — at least not yet. Of the 3.7 billion vaccine doses administered globally, just 1.7% have been in Africa. To meet the WHO’s target of vaccinating at least 10% of the population in every country by the end of September, Africa would need to administer roughly five times as many doses per week compared to its current rate. Almost 80% of African nations are expected to miss the WHO target. Some countries, including Burundi and Tanzania, are just beginning to vaccinate their populations. Others have ongoing campaigns but are still starting essentially from zero, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which so far has administered just 0.1 doses per 100 people.
There are some signs of progress on the horizon. The United States began sending vaccines to the continent this month as part of its pledge to donate 25 million doses to 49 African countries. Britain, China, and the European Union are also sending shots. The Group of Seven, a bloc of wealthy nations, pledged in June to donate 870 million additional doses to countries in need, with the aim of delivering half that supply by the end of 2021. But if the past year’s track record continues, Africa will continue to lag woefully behind in the global race to inoculate against COVID-19.
The longer the status quo continues, the more the continent will suffer the effects of overwhelmed health systems, learning losses due to closed schools, and the crushing economic impacts of lockdowns on an already largely impoverished population. And while Westerners begin returning to their pre-pandemic lives, the 98% of Africans who remain unvaccinated will continue to live each day at risk of illness and death.