Opinion

The insanity of leaving Africa unvaccinated

It's absolutely vital for rich countries to get vaccines to poorer countries, for their own self-interest if nothing else

Rich countries are getting fairly well vaccinated. Most of Western Europe is past 60 percent vaccination, and a few countries have cracked 70 percent — meaning an effective end to the pandemic. After a belated start, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea are catching up fast. Even the middle-income and poorer countries in Asia and Latin America are coming along, with only a couple exceptions.

But there is a continent-sized hole in the vaccination scheme: Africa. Morocco, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe are the only countries there over 15 percent vaccination (at 51, 29, and 16 percent respectively). Most of sub-Saharan Africa has not cracked 5 percent. Several countries have not even reached 1 percent.

This is because Africa is the poorest continent, and the rich world has not gotten its act together to mass-produce and distribute vaccines there. It's the height of irresponsibility.

Earlier this year I argued that it was absolutely vital for the rich world to get vaccines to poorer countries. Obviously it's immoral to let people die by the millions because they live in places too impoverished or dysfunctional to obtain or distribute vaccines. But it's also bad for everyone because allowing the virus to circulate in the Global South risks new variants cropping up that could get around the vaccines and harm rich countries. It's also disastrous for an economy that depends on global trade.

Sure enough, that risk was proved real with the Delta variant. This apparently evolved during a gigantic outbreak in India in late 2020 — before the vaccines were widely available, of course, but still proof that allowing unchecked circulation is hideously dangerous. Meanwhile, the ongoing pandemic is manifestly fouling up the global economy, America included. No less than the International Monetary Fund (historically the economic leg-breaker of neoliberalism) recently estimated that a global vaccination and virus control effort would cost just $50 billion, and create additional output of $9 trillion by 2025.

If there was ever a case where massive humanitarian aid was unambiguously the right move, it is here. Whether you are a socialist, capitalist, liberal, conservative, or just a plain old selfish cynic, vaccinating Africa is very obviously the right move. The relative pittance it would cost would pay for itself in a matter of weeks — and per the IMF analysis, create another $1 trillion in tax revenue in rich countries over the medium term. Heck, Jeff Bezos could finance it out of pocket by himself and still be the fourth-richest person in the world. Yet as historian Adam Tooze writes at The New York Times, "none of the members of the Group of 20 have stepped up, not Europe, not the United States, not even China. Billions of people will be forced to wait until 2023 to receive even their first shot."

(By way of comparison, Democrats in both the House and Senate recently agreed to stuff another $25 billion into the military budget for next year that President Biden didn't even ask for, despite the fact that the U.S. just ended a major war.)

The fact that not even literally trillions of dollars of free money has motivated wealthy countries to get off their hind ends suggests something much more alarming than selfishness, imperialism, or greedy pharmaceutical companies is at work here — namely, idiocy and incompetence.

To be sure, it seems pharma pressure is one reason why the Biden administration continues to drag its feet on waiving patent rights for coronavirus vaccines despite promising to do so. But it's hard to see how something so suicidally narrow-minded could be considered old-fashioned corruption. If the governments of rich countries were just a conduit for business pressure, then clearly the material interest of every single industry aside from pharma would predominate. Much more plausible to see this as a handful of corporate sociopaths cynically taking advantage of state incapacity, poor international cooperation, and simple stupidity to throw sand in the already-rusty gears of world government, and the rest of the business class being too fragmented and disorganized to fight back in such a peculiar way. (The Chamber of Commerce is not exactly used to demanding vaccines for Chad and Tanzania.)

I previously argued that the best way to solve the pandemic would be for the American government to build and operate a big vaccine factory producing the Moderna dose. Not only does the U.S. already own much of the intellectual property in that vaccine (thanks to it being developed in part by government scientists and with the help of government grants), mRNA technology is also actually much easier to scale up quickly than any other kind of vaccine. It would also be useful to have around just in case another pandemic strikes, which will happen sooner or later.

All that remains true today. If America had done that back in January, about now it would be starting to deliver several hundred million doses per month into the United Nations scheme for distribution around the world. With a little administrative assistance to help in exceptionally rough countries like the D.R.C., Africa could have been mostly vaccinated by the end of this winter.

But at present, nobody at the top levels of government in the U.S., Europe, or other countries that could spare the cash is even talking about doing this, or any other ideas to get Africa vaccinated in anything like a timely fashion. Somebody is going to have to step up and make those moves, or the terrible risk of future variants, and the ongoing reality of avoidable economic carnage, will persist.

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