EU-Africa ties should focus on shared health for all humanity

When it’s the shared health of humanity itself, at some point – even for their own good – companies need to facilitate the survival of all. A population vulnerable to the virus in Africa makes us all vulnerable.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 27 Feb 2022, 9:24 PM

As the Covid-19 pandemic proves with profound clarity how interconnected the world really is, the European Union-African Union Summit on February17-18 took on even greater urgency, especially after its previous session set for 2020 was cancelled due to the outbreak.

Underlining what many hope is a true reboot in relations, European Council president Charles Michel said “we are not here to carry on business as usual” as the summit opened in Brussels.

By the conclusion of the event there was cautious hope that progress has been made in the incredibly complex relationship – the two multinational blocs together have 82 countries and a bewildering number of cultures and groups.

Today the biggest immediate concern is vaccines. Some 70 per cent the European population has been vaccinated against the virus that causes Covid-19 compared to just 11 per cent of Africans. With the highly contagious virus cycling around the world, it has long been obvious that Africa urgently needs access to and administration of vaccines.

And that itself highlights the fundamental challenge for Europe moving forward in its relations with Africa. Can the engagement develop beyond a donor-client association to truly build Africa’s capacity? Over the long term, that fundamental question transcends even the need for vaccines.

Yet the health crisis has made the challenge crystal clear. To aid the development of Africa, Europe and other wealthy regions need to help truly empower the public and private sectors on the underdeveloped continent. In addition to donating hundreds of millions of doses, intellectual property (IP) waivers are needed to help Africa make its own.

In the months leading up to the summit, African leaders accused the EU of hoarding vaccines, imposing export restrictions on materials needed to fight the pandemic and a discriminatory travel ban against southern African countries.

Following two days of intensive meetings and talks, the final summit declaration vowed to build capacity to fight future health threats in Africa and provide funding, much of it repackaged from previous pledges or commitments.

The EU promised to provide at least 450 million vaccine doses to Africa while making 425 million euros available to accelerate vaccination and support training of medical teams in coordination with the Africa CDC. It also agreed to support development manufacturing hubs in Africa with 1 billion euros from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank.

The outcome document also noted more than $3 billion has already been set aside by the EU for the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) programme.

While there is a long way to go to build trust, Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairperson of the African Union Commission, said the summit was “the only one where we’ve really had a different kind of discussion – we’ve had a frank discussion”.

“We have 1.3 billion people, we cannot sit around waiting until we can import vaccines, “ he said. “We have an African agency, which has just been set up. We have an Africa CDC, which works on pandemics. We have the instruments. With the support of our friends, these issues should be managed at a local level.”

Macky Sall, President of Senegal, highlighted the need for action against cancer as well, noting that “in half of African countries, we don’t have any radiotherapy facilities”.

But the major stumbling block remains the continuing impasse over IP waivers.

During the summit, World Health Organisation Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hosted a ceremony with heads of EU institutions alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to announce that Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia would be the first six recipients of technology needed to produce mRNA vaccines in Africa, which will initially be produced at the South African technology hub.

And while those countries will be empowered to make such vaccines, at this point it appears pharmaceutical giants will retain for-profit rights to them.

“Initially, (the six countries) will be benefiting from this technology, training and all the regulatory environment that’s needed for this kind of process. The only issue we have to look at is intellectual property rights,” said Sall.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted there was “a very good, intense, constructive discussion” on the question of IP waivers. “We have different ways to reach that goal. There must be a bridge between those two ways,” she said.

According to the summit’s final declaration, the AU and EU are committed to “engaging constructively towards an agreement on a comprehensive WTO response to the pandemic, which includes trade-related, as well as intellectual property-related aspects”.

It was a watered-down final communiqué without the commitment to IP waivers that African nations wanted. The South African president made it clear it is not “acceptable that Africa is consistently at the back of the queue in relation to access to medicines”.

Ramaphosa said the issue of IP waivers is now an “uncomfortable point” but if talks are successful, they would pave the way for operations with the needed capacity.

Talking at the WHO ceremony, he remained defiant. “Governments that are really serious about ensuring that the world has access to vaccines should ensure that the waiver is approved,” he said.

Of course, the governments of developed countries know that pharmaceutical companies must invest vast sums to develop medicines, and the capitalist system is built on the profit motive to encourage innovation.

But when it’s the shared health of humanity itself, at some point – even for their own good – companies need to facilitate the survival of all. A population vulnerable to the virus in Africa makes us all vulnerable.

It’s time for the EU-Africa relationship to move beyond that of a patron and client and become truly symbiotic – for the good of Africa and all mankind.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan

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