Note: Since I wrote this post, the delta variant has spread in Uganda and other African countries and the daily number of confirmed cases has risen sharply. Although still moderate in relation to the total population, the strain on the local health system is considerable and will more likely lead to deaths than in countries with higher vaccination numbers. However, the newly enforced lockdown also exacerbates the problems described below.
I get increasingly annoyed about how the Global North is talking about Corona in Africa. In mainstream media (and in most discussions), there are two lines of argument that dominate debate. One is alarmist in nature: it talks about virus variants “raging through South Africa” or the “alarming” lack of vaccinations and testing on the continent. The other professes to be moral: it talks about equity and how unfair it is that Africa doesn’t get its fair share of vaccinations. Both arguments have some truth in it: yes, there isn’t a lot of testing in most African countries (but where there is, like in South Africa, it reveals that incidences have been well below 50 since February), and yes, access to vaccines isn’t fair and equal around the world.
What both arguments have in common, however, is that they assume Corona is as bad in Africa as it is in say, Europe, Latin America or India. In my experience from travelling to East Africa and talking to countless partners and friends on the continent, it isn’t. Nobody I know actually knows of someone who has died of Corona. Everybody I know actually knows of many people who have had it – they get sick for a week, and then they get back to work. If Ebola and Malaria are your frame of reference, having a cough and some fever for a week or two loses some of its horrors. I am no medical expert, but there must be a reason why Corona is called “the rich man’s disease” in South Africa or why townships get affected but we don’t see the kind of images we saw in Italy when mass infections led to massive deaths a year ago. In a society with an age average below 20 years like Ethiopia, my colleagues in the country assume that almost everyone has had Corona but just didn’t notice it. While testing is not widespread in most countries, some companies and aid organisations do test all their employees, which regularly reveals 40-60% of staff had been infected at some point. In Uganda, people assume that countless vaccine jabs have been thrown away because nobody wanted them. Yes, part of that is due to superstition. But part of it is also due to the fact that many people (and I talk about tax consultants with the Big Four global firms for example or architects with nationwide projects) just don’t see the benefit of a vaccination. What they do all see are the devastating effects Corona regulations have had on people’s livelihoods, on hunger and on health in general.
Europe got its response to Corona about right and I support the push for vaccinations and, for example, lockdowns when numbers get out of control. But what does a lockdown and isolation actually mean in most African countries? The people who can actually isolate themselves are the top 10% who have a proper home that’s big enough to escape to and lock. You can’t isolate yourself in a slum or a township. And the effect of a lockdown is mainly to take all job prospects away from the myriad of street traders, motorcycle taxi drivers and daily labourers. As a result, poverty is skyrocketing across much of sub-Saharan Africa and hunger is on the rise again. Paradoxically, the health effects of our focus on Corona are just as extreme: deaths by malaria (already incredibly high at 400,000 a year) are projected to double also because Corona restrictions have made health care in remote areas difficult or even impossible – and simple measures like mosquito nets can’t be enforced anymore.
I have little patience with the moral argument for fair access to vaccines in Africa because I think the argument is self-serving. It is driven by our fear of those “African mutants” making their way back to Europe. I detect a pattern here: we rarely argue passionately for the things that would really help Africa for its own sake. Take medical research: the reason we are able to cure Aids by now is because the disease travelled to Europe and North America. We upped development aid in the last few years because refugees began to threaten our way of life. The reason we call for Corona vaccinations across the continent is because we are afraid it might come back to haunt us if we don’t. If we really cared about Africa we would focus on the biggest problems and the biggest opportunities for their own sake, not for ours. For example, we finally have a vaccine against malaria. This should be the focus of global vaccination efforts, and this would be a great opportunity for lending a helping hand to those who can’t afford it. We should abandon our Eurocentric view on Corona and focus more on what really matters in Africa: treatment, vaccines and medication for the real killer diseases. Malaria is the obvious one, but others matter, too: even at the height of the second wave of Corona in South Africa, it paled in comparison to TB, which is the country’s leading cause of death. If the remedy is worse than the disease, it is time to rethink the remedy. And rather than stare at vaccination numbers, get down to building businesses those give jobs and livelihoods back to those who have lost everything because of the pandemic.