The UK and rich European countries are in a panic. Unsurprisingly, stockpiling vast swaths of the global vaccine supply has enabled the emergence of new and dangerous types of COVID-19. Once again, rich countries punish the victims of global vaccine inequality by closing borders to anyone from South Africa.
Of course, the Omicron variant, as the World Health Organization called it, was not found exclusively in South Africa. Cases have been detected in Asia and Europe, including in the UK, but the global south is being blamed for this, while the means to deal with COVID-19 have been turned away. This fits perfectly with the way rich countries have handled the pandemic.
At every stage of their response, hopes for cooperation faded. Western countries have stockpiled — and even disposed of — vaccines rather than donated them on a large scale or on time. For more than a year, the United Kingdom and the European Union have blocked a proposal by South Africa and India to suspend intellectual property for COVID-19 technologies including vaccines. Most countries in the world understand that this is critical to raising vaccine production to the levels required to eradicate this epidemic. But for leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, backing the pharmaceutical monopolies is even more important.
Only seven percent of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, and recent data shows that only one in four health workers in Africa are fully protected. This is not only morally ugly, but also dangerous: it creates fertile ground for new variants.
Timing is important in this pandemic. As Professor Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University has warned, stopping transmission in every corner of the world is vital to prevent the virus from developing – and mutating dangerously.
As is the case around the world, African governments have made mistakes in this pandemic. Indeed, my South African organization, the Health Equity Initiative, has been vocal about our government’s mistakes, including about the transparency of vaccine contracts.
South Africa also had to face serious political violence in mid-2021 and the government changed health ministers twice in 12 months. This has been exacerbated by devastating job losses and the hunger crisis, which has been exacerbated by the often irrational travel bans.
But the continuing health system in apartheid-era South Africa, enduring poverty levels, and a year-long inability to get adequate amounts of vaccines on time, all mean that the government faces an impossible task. For the better part of 2021, with limited global supplies pulled by the Globe North, South Africa was a drip-fed vaccine supply.
AstraZeneca was initially one of the few vaccines flowing into Africa. But misinformation from Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb questioning the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, exacerbated by European Union leaders, has also led to distrust of the vaccine. Its use was then paused in several African countries, and discontinued in South Africa, with the beta variant and Indian export restrictions also appearing.
The African Union negotiated a new deal with Johnson & Johnson, via Aspen Pharmacare in South Africa. But most of the 220 to 400 million promised vaccines have yet to be delivered. Worse, when it mattered most, during the devastating third wave in South Africa, Johnson & Johnson actually exported millions of vaccines packaged and finished in South Africa, to highly vaccinated countries in Europe and North America.
In August, in collaboration with the South African government and Cape Town-based biotech company Afrigen, the World Health Organization began building the first global manufacturing center to produce and share mRNA vaccines with the world, dispelling the racist notion that Africa is unable to safely manufacture vaccines. Shamefully, Moderna and Pfizer refused to share any knowledge with the center.
So African scientists have to reverse engineer the process themselves, which can take some time. Sensing a PR crunch, these companies are trying to bypass the center with parallel partial licensing deals. Far from being benevolent, these deals appear designed to undermine the efforts of the World Health Organization.
Along the way, the series of delays, misinformation, and confidentiality of vaccine contracts for companies with widespread compensation against liability clauses has led to a mistrust of vaccine companies — aided by the increasingly good anti-vaccine movement and politicians seeking to score points.
We need a different way of doing things. More than 100 countries have been pushing for at least a year for the emergency suspension of intellectual property rights over technologies critical to ending the pandemic. This exemption will make it easier for South Africa and other countries to produce vaccines, especially to increase supplies for everyone and save lives. But it has been repeatedly banned by the UK and EU countries, for no good reason.
In contrast, South Africa has long been a constructive global partner in the pandemic – hundreds have volunteered on vaccine trials and advanced scientific surveillance systems that help quickly detect novel COVID-19 variants.
If we do not want COVID-19 to continue to exacerbate the racist and colonial world order, we need to change. And believe it or not, the UK and Europe will benefit too. Because you can’t enforce strict policies or build walls high enough to keep the consequences of egalitarian vaccines at bay. We need to remove all barriers and remove all barriers to vaccine production – intellectual property being the first. We need solidarity and cooperation, not indirect travel bans.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.