A charity chief has urged for fair access to COVID-19 vaccines – making a plea to countries and vaccination providers to not forget “people off the grid” such as those in Africa; a continent already weakened by conflict and humanitarian disasters.
Patrick Youssef, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Africa director, said about half the countries in the continent, with a population of more than one billion, has yet to receive any vaccine supplies, raising fears that a rise in coronavirus infections could quickly overwhelm already fragile health systems.
Speaking to Al Arabiya English on the sidelines of the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference & Exhibition (DIHAD), Youssef said that as wealthy nations snapped up several billion vaccine doses it has meant some countries in the developing world have little or none.
“We are extremely concerned and extremely concerned about this,” said Youssef, pointing out that, to date, just 22 out of 54 African countries have received vaccine supplies.
“For example, 300,000 doses will reach Libya in the coming weeks, but in most countries - those that are receiving vaccines – supplies are very moderate.”
“Let’s be honest, it is about competition. There are only a few COVID-19 vaccine producers over the world – who are trying to vaccinate the world. And Africa has not been a priority.”
While Africa is a continent “well used to dealing with viruses and atrocities”, Youssef said they need help from overseas.
“When we look at US or Europe they are caring for own citizens – we understand why its complex to prioritize others – but there’s a moral imperative to help countries who do not have the same capabilities – especially in continents experiencing war and violence.”
“These are people off the grid – away from people’s eyes and conscience – and it means they are the victim of loss of attention.”
While many African countries have received praise for waging an effective campaign to combat the spread of coronavirus – the risk facing the continent could cripple communities and countries, unless richer nations step in to help.
Despite its vast size, the continent has had fewer cases than those in either Europe, Asia or the Americas, but cases are on the rise.
As of March 15, confirmed cases of COVID-19 from 55 African countries reached 4,036,012 – accounting for just 3.4 per cent of global infections. Reported deaths in Africa reached 107,821, 3,622,399 people have recovered, with over 5,161,375 vaccinations administered, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
“We need to acknowledge that Africa as a whole has managed, in the wake of the coronavirus with the tools and the capacities it had to contain the threat as much as possible, since first case on the continent was confirmed in Egypt on February 14 last year,” said Youssef.
Right from the beginning, he said, most African governments took drastic measures to try to slow the spread of the virus. Public health measures - including avoiding handshakes, frequent hand-washing, social distancing and wearing of face masks - were swiftly introduced – while many countries went into early lockdown.
However, measures implemented have varied from richer nations – such as Egypt and Morocco – to poorer nations, already coping with humanitarian and conflict threats – such as Sudan and Kenya, struggling from a lack of infrastructure to educate and treat citizens, and a “total lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)”, said Youssef.
Help for poorer nations
As the Africa moves into its second year of coping with the pandemic, outside help is needed more than ever.
“As we move past the 12-month mark after the initial outbreak in the continent we need to continue raising awareness of the humanitarian impact of COVID-19,” said Youssef.
“In Africa the virus and new variants are accelerating across the continent in areas already wakened by conflict.
“The same motto applies – no one is safe from COVID-19 – and Africa is a huge space that not only offers external commerce but is home to millions of migrants.”
“When we talk about vaccine equity it is about fairness in distribution and there is a need for all states in the continent to benefit from the UN-backed COVAX effort to get vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable people – and to benefit from ties with China, Russia, India and other counties who are producers of vaccines.”
“Vaccines for all is the only way to salvage humanity as a whole.”
The ICRC works to support organizations on the frontline of preventative measures and health systems with PCR testing programs.
Countries such as Ethiopia, home to more than two million displaced people, can present extreme logistical challenges.
Another key role is education.
In many places across Africa, such as a vast number of refugee camps in countries like Sudan, where millions of people live in tents and share meals and water, it is impossible to enforce social distancing measures, said Youssef.
The ICRC works to educate them about the importance of hygiene to reduce virus transmission risk.
The charity also works as a safe intermediary with armed groups controlling large parts of land across the continent to create a safe platform for populations to receive healthcare.
“It is important for the international community not to see Africa as a charity case – but a place where people need the basics – access to vaccines and access to information,” said Youssef.
“It is much more than a must. It’s a humanitarian necessity.”