My uncle died of Covid-19 before he could get a vaccine in Kenya, and I got mine in a US drug. This is what vaccination equality looks like
Even at 96, my Kenyan grandmother was among hundreds of millions in the developing world who were not vaccinated until recently because rich nations hoarded most of the vaccinations available. Even though I’m more than 60 years younger than her, I got the full vaccine in April because I lived in the United States, where anyone over 12 can get a vaccine if they want one. The acute dose shortage for the world’s poorest has been labeled “vaccine apartheid”, “greed” and “catastrophic moral failure”. But the public humiliation has done little, and Africa has received the fewest vaccines in the world. Around half of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Here in Kenya it is just 1.1% of the population. While wealthy countries are dropping all restrictions and reopening their societies because most adults are fully vaccinated, new cases are increasing at the fastest rate ever in Africa, where very few people are vaccinated. The West stocks more vaccines than it will ever need, and stores brokered by multiple countries allow them to buy enough doses to vaccinate each of their citizens multiple times. Earlier this year, North American countries had bought enough doses of vaccine more than twice to fully vaccinate the region’s population, while African countries had only received enough vaccinations for a third of the continent’s population. The world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, has now completely run out of vaccines and has suspended its program because it does not know when to get more vaccinations. Of the 3.5 billion people who have already been vaccinated worldwide, only 1.6% live in African countries. For eight weeks in a row, new cases have been rising on the continent, leading to a new wave of lockdowns, overwhelmed health systems, lost livelihoods and, worst of all, high death tolls. In the past week alone, the death toll rose more than 40%. Many of these could have been prevented if more Africans had been vaccinated.
I had just finished filming in a crowded intensive care unit treating critical Covid-19 patients in Uganda’s capital Kampala last month when I found out that my uncle Justus died of the virus himself across the border in Kenya. I was heartbroken and angry. He was not vaccinated because Kenya does not and still does not have enough vaccinations, even for a senior like him.
Jupiter was buried within 48 hours, as requested by the Kenyan government. He was the third family member to die in the pandemic that I couldn’t see properly mourned or buried.
In western Kenya, where my grandmother lives and my uncle died, there is a state of emergency as the Delta variant flows through the region. This is another major blow to an impoverished region in a country that has lived with a nationwide curfew since late March 2020.
As everywhere in the world, pandemic fatigue is sweeping Africa. The difference is that people cannot afford to ignore common sense public health measures because we do not have the luxury of widespread vaccination and herd immunity to protect ourselves.
“And because people die every day, I say that a delayed vaccine is a denied vaccine,” said Dr. Gitahi Githinji, Group CEO of Amref Health Africa, told CNN.
Africans are amazed at the reluctance in the West
Rwanda probably has the strictest social distancing and masking regulations I’ve seen anywhere on the continent, but the East African nation has been forced into another strict lockdown in an attempt to mitigate the force of a vicious third wave of infections. The country followed all the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and appeared to be doing everything right, but was still overrun with coronavirus cases as only vaccines offer real protection. With only around 2% of Rwandans vaccinated, this may not be the country’s last lockdown. Many people I’ve met in the five African countries I’ve visited in the past few weeks are amazed at the vaccine resistance in the West. I watched the coverage of protests in Europe against vaccination regulations with a friend in Nairobi. “Can you give us the vaccines that you don’t want?” She asked. Some Americans are even bribed with beer, donuts, or cash to get Covid-19 shots, while many Africans would like to take them away for free if they were available. As the world’s richest move into post-pandemic life, the rest of us in the Global South are still in the midst of a devastating crisis that has no way out for the foreseeable future. The highly transferable delta variant has now been detected in 21 African countries, and the trend is rising.
Global health authorities have warned that during a global pandemic, nobody is safe until everyone is safe. But vaccination inequality means that new strains of the virus could emerge in Africa and quickly spread to the rest of the world, rendering any mass vaccination gains ineffective elsewhere.
A deserted continent
The biggest lesson for Africa, say some leaders here, is that it is on its own and there is no global solidarity when people are most vulnerable.
“As a continent, we have to stop believing that there is anyone out there who is a biblical good Samaritan who is in the process of helping us,” Kenya’s Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe told me in May. “This is a situation where we have seen very clearly that it is each for himself or for himself and God for all of us.”
Countries like Kenya rely on COVAX, an effort by the WHO to provide Covid-19 vaccines at a subsidized cost to low and middle income countries, but it is underfunded and the need is far greater than the tiny drop available for distribution .
Long after the richest parts of the world won the war on the pandemic, Africa could be the last place on earth still fighting a malicious virus without weapons or ammunition. The oft-repeated mantra that “we’re in it together” sounds hollow when a privileged few have more vaccines than they need and many have nothing.
By the time my grandmother was vaccinated by local officials, it was too late as she was infected with Covid-19. She outlived her husband, my paternal grandfather, by more than 25 years, but we now agree that she may not survive this disease. All I needed to get protection was walking to a nearby drug store in Washington, DC. But many people like my grandmother have died or will die because they live where they live. Your heart is failing now and mine is breaking.