Vaccine apartheid: The safer Africa is, the safer world is

Overlooking the continent harms the developed world, in disproportionate and disastrous ways.

By Ndileka Mandela

Published: Wed 5 Jan 2022, 11:25 PM

Most of the world ignored the Aids crisis in Africa, at least until it became impossible to ignore. Most of the world ignored the Covid crisis in Africa, at least until it became impossible to ignore. Two of these things are different.

One of these is the same.

Africa, my continent, which I have been dedicated to uplifting just like my grandfather, Nelson Mandela, before me, is often considered expendable or irrelevant. It’s a strange bias, because it’s a self-defeating one. Overlooking Africa doesn’t help the developed world. As recent events have shown, overlooking Africa harms the developed world, in disproportionate and disastrous ways.

That’s not surprising because, try as we might to ban flights or enforce new lockdowns, the world is interconnected. To quote from the late Martin Luther King, Jr., injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. A virus in one place is soon a virus in every place. So why is it so hard for that lesson to sink in?

Initially, I hesitated to use the term “apartheid” to describe these rampant double standards because of the powerful, troubling history of the term. My family knows all too well the brutal legacy of White supremacism in South Africa. We understand how catastrophic systemic racism in South Africa was. But, being Africans, we also know a deeper, bleaker, bigger history too.

While white supremacism in South Africa was particularly heinous, it is inseparable from a long record of ugly colonial interference in our societies and cultures. “Separate and unequal” has been a condition that Black people, whether in Africa or elsewhere, have endured for centuries. The rest of the world is only unevenly coming to terms with this.

Sadly, Covid proved that racist attitudes die off very slowly.

While the developed world enjoys an excess of vaccines, and the luxury of debating mandatory booster shots, many developing countries, including my own, struggle with low vaccination rates, uneven access to medical expertise (and many times to vaccines themselves), and of course the legacies of imperialism and then neo-colonialism.

The result? Even where medical aid is available, it is viewed sceptically at best, and unsurprisingly so —why would Africans trust promises when so many before were broken or proved harmful? But if the Global North thought the consequences of whole eras of mistreatment could be neatly geographically confined, they were clearly mistaken.

A failure to make vaccines widely available meant that while much of the Global North was trying to go back to normal, the coronavirus kept circulating, not only infecting millions but evolving as well, developing new permutations that posed unpredictable dangers, as we’ve seen with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Among other things, Omicron appears to be much more contagious than any other variant so far; while vaccines and booster shots appear to strongly reduce the risk of severe illness, they also do not prevent breakthrough infections. That means the entire world must now confront the possibility of another round of lockdowns, disruptions, illness, and death.

By refusing to invest in global health, which is a smart response to a global disease, no one benefits. In fact, everybody suffers.

Fortunately, the world is not entirely immune to history. By embracing the other, even the other who harmed him and his people, my grandfather opened the door to a new South Africa. We in South Africa are always willing to partner with the well-intentioned, to come up with effective solutions and long-term approaches that keep all people, wherever they are, safer and healthier.

What we are not looking for are kneejerk responses like travel bans. We are eager for thoughtful, long-term partnerships that respect the fundamental dignity of all people.

“We must recognise we will not be able to defeat this pandemic until and unless we defeat it everywhere. We are not safe until everybody is safe.” said Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi in an interview with the Arab News programme “Frankly Speaking.”

He not only highlighted the $500 million commitment made by Saudi Arabia, to solving global vaccine inequality but, pledged that, “hundreds of millions” more will be spent.

Or China’s considerable investment in vaccine diplomacy,, assisting countries that lack the resources to fight the coronavirus on their own and making its own vaccine Sinovac widely available.

The spirit of countries like Saudi Arabia and China should be studied more closely; we have tried, in the first year and a half of this terrible pandemic, to pursue unilateral approaches. As Omicron painfully proves, these approaches are half-measures at best, and ultimately doomed to failure, whether slowly or catastrophically.

In the past, the United Nations eventually stepped forward to coordinate an end to the Aids pandemic. Hopefully, the United Nations can assume that role again. For no one part of the world can solve this crisis without the participation of all other parts of the world. Multilateralism, diplomacy, respect, and collaboration are the key.

The safer we all are, the safer Africa is. And the safer Africa is, the safer we all are.

The author is a peace activists and granddaughter of Nobel Laureate and former president of 
South Africa Nelson Mandela.

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