Africa's economic recovery hinges on COVID-19 vaccination
By Benard Ayieko  ·  2021-08-04  ·   Source: ChinAfrica

Only 2 percent of people in Africa have been vaccinated, according to the WHO (XINHUA)

The roll out of the COVID-19 vaccines globally has brought some measure of hope to the re-opening of global economies. The path to economic recovery in some countries seems to have taken off, aided largely by the vaccination programs targeting every adult around the world. This vaccination program is touted to be the largest of its kind in history. Many countries have made good progress in vaccinating their citizens, like China and the U.S. 

Slow vaccine roll out

In Africa, the vaccine roll out is moving at a snails pace, leading to more infections that have resulted in new measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. To ameliorate this vaccine supply shortage in Africa, the United Nations and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been on the forefront of urging countries, especially those in the developed world with surplus vaccine supplies, to donate to parts of Africa where the demand far outweighs the supply. The concerns about the vaccine roll out in Africa are legitimate and worrying.

According the World Health Organization (WHO), only about two doses of the vaccine have been administered per 100 people in Africa, representing 2 percent of the population. This is different from the COVID-19 vaccination statistics in developed countries where an average of 68 doses has already been administered per 100 people, or 68 percent of the population that has already been vaccinated.

Several programs have been mooted to assist with the vaccination efforts in Africa to avoid the dangers posed by the spread of the coronavirus, having serious ramifications on the economies of the continent. One of the measures taken to shore up the vaccine supplies is the WHO-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. COVAX is a global initiative whose key objective is to promote equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines supported by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the WHO, working in partnership with developed countries' vaccine manufacturers, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, the World Bank, and others. It is the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries, particularly in Africa.

Besides the COVAX program, African countries have also received vaccine donations from China, Russia, France, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Even though there have been concerns about vaccine supplies in Africa, it has also emerged that there is a slow uptake of jabs, partly due to lack of awareness about the vaccine among the general population. Additionally, the slow rate of vaccination for the limited available doses has been blamed on issues around distributing the vaccines, such as the lack of health infrastructure and staff.

So, what started as a promising year economically for the continent after good news of the COVID-19 vaccine may just turn out not to be what the economic pundits envisioned - a bullish economic outlook now looks bearish. The escalation of new COVID-19 lockdown measures to control the spread of new virus variants in countries like Uganda is causing havoc on the African economy. In some parts of Africa, the lockdowns are back, unemployment is soaring, health facilities are overstretched and economies are shrinking because of reduced economic activities. The shortage of vaccines in most African countries is crushing the continent's hopes of an economic revival.

Pandemic smacks African economy

Africa has been hard hit economically by the new wave of COVID-19 infections. According to the African Development Bank, economic growth on the continent shrank by 2.1 percent in 2020 and that it is likely to resume at a moderate average rate of 3.4 percent in 2021, before rising to 4.6 percent in 2022. This growth is dependent on vaccine supplies and uptake that will help in opening the economies for an expected rebound in commodity prices, travel and tourism, among others.

While there is no doubt that the pandemic has negatively impacted the economic growth and development prospects for most African countries, the slow roll out and uptake of the vaccines continue to exacerbate the challenges these economies are facing, particularly with regard to the exchange rates, inflation, foreign financial inflows, capital markets, exports, cost of living, tourism and the war against poverty on the continent. The new measures to contain the new wave of infections in Africa, as a result of slow vaccine roll out, has also led to the weakening of other economic fundamentals on whose foundation the economy lies. The African Development Bank opines that large exchange rate depreciations in most African countries have occurred mainly because of the disruptions in external financial flows.

Unblock vaccine supply lines

So, what can be done to ameliorate the slow vaccine roll out in Africa?

First, there is a need to deal with the vaccine supply bottlenecks that are making the vaccines inaccessible to over 90 percent of the continent's population. A blockage on vaccine supplies caused by domestic policies in the countries of origin of the vaccines has significantly closed the avenues available for increased supply of the jabs to the continent. For instance, the vaccine deliveries to Africa through the COVAX facility came to a halt in May, as the Serum Institute of India required vaccine stocks for domestic use. The net effect of this move was to cut the vaccine supplies to Africa between February and May to 18.2 million doses instead of the 66 million doses expected via the COVAX program.

Secondly, there is also a need to improve the health infrastructure to support the vaccine roll out program in Africa. Most people live in rural areas, where the health care system that should deliver the vaccines to rural dwellers does not match population distribution. This has made it difficult for the people who live far away from vaccine access points to get the jab, meaning they remain at risk of being infected. African governments must deliberately and urgently develop the health infrastructure and logistics networks to support the access of the vaccines to citizens across their countries, and to ensure a large percentage of population are vaccinated.

Lastly, there is a need for African countries to seek collaboration with developing countries like China, in either getting direct donations of vaccines, or opening up potential avenues for manufacturing of the vaccines in Africa to guarantee and sustain the demand for supply to every corner of the continent. China has pledged to supply its locally manufactured vaccines to African countries. The local manufacturing of China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine has started in Egypt. This makes it possible for the Egyptian partner to get the expertise and technical assistance needed from China to produce the vaccine in Africa. It is only through proper coordination to inoculate the highest percentage of population possible, that the continental economy will open up to increased economic activities and be able to support the post-COVID-19 economic recovery strategies. Time is of essence. 

The writer is an economist, consultant and a regional commentator on trade and investment based in Nairobi, Kenya

(Print Edition Title: Jabs in Arms Critical) 

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