By Dr. Abdiqani Sheikh Omar
The covid-19 pandemic has caused substantial mortality and plunged national economies into deep recessions. Although the spread of the virus can be mitigated through physical distancing, face coverings, and testing and tracing- and potentially with therapeutics- the risk of outbreaks and disruption to economic and social life will probably remain until effective vaccines are administered to large portions of the global population to prevent hospitalization and severe disease, and preferably achieve herd immunity to halt transmission of the virus.
Several covid-19 vaccines have now been authorized or approved for human use, with many more in the late stages of clinical development. Yet having licensed vaccines is not enough to achieve global control of covid-19: they also need to be produced at scale, priced affordably, allocated globally so that they are available where needed, and widely deployed in local communities.
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The ravages of Covid-19 in Africa continue to expose the ailing health sector in the continent and put to test third world countries’ preparedness in pandemics of such magnitude. Countries like Nigeria acted with speed when the first cases were reported in the country by closing schools. South Africa went a notch higher by banning visitors from high risk countries and closing institutions of learning.
While these measures were being taken, some African countries took measures that were counterproductive in controlling a virus that was largely an import from China and European capitals. They put their countries under lock-down but allowed foreign nationals from corona red zones free access into their countries. Some of the containment measures have been commendable but the continent still faces the hard reality of ensuring its citizenry have timely access to Covid-19 vaccines as we shall see below:
The health sector is grossly underfunded and this has been playing out with the increase in Covid-19 cases. While wealthy countries are spending billions in research and developing vaccines, Africa has to rely on donor funding to be able to access these life-saving vaccines. Vaccine manufacturing is a huge complex undertaking that requires financial muscle and a long term vision to achieve-which is bereft in most low income countries.
Lack of storage facilities: Another challenge that has made it difficult for low income countries to effectively administer the vaccine is lack of storage facilities. With a crippling health sector, basics like cold rooms and high tech freezers designed to store drugs like Pfizer’s vaccine are not available. This coupled by unreliable power supply complicates the fight against the pandemic.
Anti-Vaccine Crusaders: A section of social media users are anti-vaccine crusaders. Videos have been shared on Facebook, WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms warning of the side effects of the vaccine. This messaging is taken to be the gospel truth thus crippling the fight against corona.
Not Supportive Governments: Governments are not helping by being seen by the populace to be involved or condoning corruption as has been the case in Kenya. When medics are in the streets protesting over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and poor pay, well connected individuals are making millions from donor funding meant to procure such equipment. Money that was meant to go towards procuring vaccines has ended up in well-connected individual pockets.
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Not Supportive Leaders: Leaders have not been left behind in downplaying and bastardizing the Covid-19 pandemic. The late Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli was an anti-vaccine poster boy. While his counterparts in the region-imposed lockdowns and other measures to curb the coronavirus, Magufuli urged his countrymen to continue working saying that God had completely healed his country from the virus. His successor has seen the need to engage professionals to give a way forward in relations to Covid-19.
Not enough healthcare personnel: Africa has a shortage of healthcare personnel to effectively administer the vaccine. The continent has an average of 1.30 health workers per 1000 population. This is made worse by poor pay and battered morale to combat Covid-19.
Coronavirus should be a lesson to African countries to invest more in their health sector to avoid over reliance on the West in times of pandemics. This is through allocating more funds on research, training and equipping hospitals. Health personnel should also be well paid to avoid brain drain.
The writer, Dr. Abdiqani Sheikh Omar is a Senior WASH Strategic Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Energy and Water in Somalia and Former Director General at Ministry of Health and Human Service, FGs.
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