When the 3.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Nigeria on March 2, 2021, many citizens were happy. It was the first batch of an overall 16 million doses meant for Nigeria. The target was to deliver about 600 million and two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa and the world respectively by the end of 2021. People and nations were hopeful of fair distribution as the vaccines were brought under COVAX Facility, a coalition that ensures equitable access of the vaccines across the world.
Sadly, the World Health Organisation (WHO), recently, regretted a “scandalous inequity” in COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Speaking at the 74th World Health Assembly, which kicked off virtually last week, the Director-General of the global health body, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said no country should assume that it is “out of the woods,” no matter its vaccination rate, as long as the COVID-19 virus and its variants spread elsewhere. According to him, just about 10 countries account for 75 per cent of the vaccine doses that have been administered so far.
“There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” Ghebreyesus said.
This is not good at all. It undermines the fight against the pandemic, given that the world has become a global village. The situation should be taken seriously, especially with regard to the emergence of new variants that have defied traditional treatment. Already, many countries are battling the third wave of the disease fuelled by the new variants, which could be more deadly. India is a typical example.
Incidentally, the United Nations has noted that this vaccine inequality is posing a significant risk to a fragile global economic recovery. The UN economic forecast added that while the outlook for global growth had improved, the on-going impacts of the pandemic, as well as inadequate progress on vaccination in poorer countries, were putting recovery at risk. With the exception of large economies like China and the United States that are on the road to recovery, several countries in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are said to be struggling with fragile and uncertain growth.
French President, Emmanuel Macron, had warned of the dire consequences of the current situation. He said the first lesson we could learn from this COVID-19 pandemic was that we could only succeed together; and that no country alone would save itself and save the others.
For the world to be safe and for a prompt end to the pandemic, there should be equity in the distribution of the vaccines. Drug manufacturing companies should consider reducing the cost of the vaccines to enable poor countries to get access to them. COVAX co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, the World Bank, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and all donors should continue in their efforts to ensure equitable distribution of these vaccines across the world, especially to poor countries.
It is gratifying to note that the WHO has set new targets for protecting people in the poorest countries. The DG of the world body had urged the agency’s member-states to ensure that at least 10 per cent of the population of every country is fully vaccinated by September and at least 30 per cent by December.
To keep the statistics low in Nigeria, we must ensure, beyond administering the vaccines, that all visitors, who enter the country by air, land or sea are thoroughly checked. Nigerians must also avoid non-essential travels for now. The Federal Government had earlier warned against travelling to countries that are recording a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also banned visitors from India, Turkey and Brazil from entering Nigeria. The Chairman of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, added that COVID-19 PCR test results older than 72 hours before departure would not be accepted.
There is need to also improve our vaccination/testing rates. We should adhere strictly to the four phases of the vaccine rollout, which started with frontline health workers and strategic leadership. The government should also intensify efforts on enlightenment campaigns especially against the latest variants of the virus.
We also need to increase the observation/adherence to non-pharmaceutical COVID-19 protocols such as hand washing, use of hand sanitizers, wearing of facemasks and social distancing.
Besides, Nigeria should explore its goodwill with donor agencies and other options to ensure it gets adequate vaccines for its large population. The 3.9 million doses that we earlier received are grossly inadequate. As the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, put it, “unless we act now, we face a situation in which rich countries vaccinate the majority of their people and open their economies, while the virus continues to cause deep suffering by circling and mutating in the poorest countries.”