As Africa battles the Covid-19 pandemic, it is faced with two interrelated challenges it must confront: achieving health security and restoring the continent’s dignity. Major tragedies such as the Covid-19 pandemic tend to lay bare the shortcomings of the African continent. Moreover, the tragedies also reveal the inequities on which the current world order thrives, despite pervasive public pronouncements from western capitals that claim to advance the cause of human rights. Fortunately, this time around African leaders seem determined to prevent the recurrence of the situation that led to the deaths of tens of millions of Africans due to the continent’s inability to produce Antiretroviral drugs for HIV/AIDS in the previous major pandemic. Senegal and Rwanda’s partnership with the German-based pharmaceutical giant, BioNTech, which aims to make mRNA vaccine manufacturing in Africa a reality, is a step in the right direction and an indication that with the right leadership and values, health security and dignity are within reach.
Obviously, there is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that “We Africans import 99 per cent of our vaccines, produce 1 per cent of the vaccines that we consume, and consume 25 per cent of the world’s vaccines,” as Dr John N. Nkengasong, Africa CDC Director, noted in an interview with The Pan-African Review. This level of dependency can only lead us from one preventable catastrophe to another without the appropriate tools to break the vicious circle.
Similarly, there is something fundamentally wrong about the world we live in if you consider that a group of countries (the “human rights” champions) colluded to hoard life-saving items – stocking up more than they need while denying others the opportunity to buy by slapping export restrictions on them – and, then, competed amongst each other for photo opportunities that showcase their “generosity” as they donate their excesses, with close expiry dates. Consequently, Africa’s attempts to access Covid-19 vaccines have become a tragic-comedy punctuated by tales of how a would-be client was turned into a beggar so that the would-be seller could retain his “saviour” status. Clearly, the saviour status – as understood by our “benefactors” – is antithetical to the idea of dignity for the beneficiaries.
Both wrongs require a change of value systems. On the one hand, Africans must own up to their failures and disrupt the predictions of their imminent demise at the hands of a deadly virus.
In this regard, President Macky Sall of Senegal and President Kagame of Rwanda have shown the change of orientation and sense of urgency needed to respond to the challenge; they have shown that a new direction that gets Africa out of perpetual vulnerability – that allows others to predict its impending demise – is possible.
“Africa was used to receiving foreign aid whenever problems hit. But this pandemic hit the whole world. Countries that would offer such aid were hit as well. It [the partnership with BioNTech] will not only be for Rwanda or Covid-19 vaccine. It will produce multiple vaccines for the whole of Africa,” President Kagame told the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) in a recent interview, on September 5, 2021.
President Kagame’s remarks are a subtle call for a change of mindset in Africa – a change that would compel us to reject the self-defeating mentality of relying on foreign aid and embrace values that cultivate self-worth and dignity in and for our people. Perhaps then, Africans can seriously envision taking their health security into their own hands by leveraging the abundant resources of the continent to further their interests.
On the other hand, it is not sufficient to proclaim that “a threat anywhere in the world is a threat everywhere in the world” as western leaders have done on several occasions since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic; they must actually be prepared to act according to their public pronouncements and live up to their professed values. Clearly, the western world cannot claim to be concerned about the well-being and the human rights of Africans while undermining the global fight against the covid-19 pandemic by formulating apartheid policies that lead to preventable deaths; ironically, they promote policies that kill the very people whose human rights these western governments and their human rights organisations and “activists” repeatedly claim to be fighting for.
Obviously, a change of value systems is needed on the part of the West if their leaders are to be consistent with the ideals they claim to promote. Indeed, if the world is to defeat this pandemic, a value system that shuns duplicity and embraces cooperation instead of competition for supremacy is long overdue. In this regard, BioNTech’s decision to enter into partnership with African countries will offer insights into what such a value system could produce if pursued with conviction.
“Rwanda and Senegal’s partnership with BioNTech marks a turning point in vaccine equity,” President Kagame said after the Compact with Africa summit in Berlin in August, thanking German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European partners for their contribution.
To change counter-productive value systems that feed on each other is not only the humane thing to do; it is what science and history call for. The Bubonic plague that ravaged Christian Europe in the 14th century is as insightful as any major pandemic could be. As the plague spread from Italy, Spain, France to England and the rest of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated the politics of these countries at the time, offered prayers as a substitute for science. After millions had died, the survivors turned against the church, which had failed to protect their loved ones. In hindsight, they turned against a value system that rejected science.
Similar trends rejecting science have been observed in some parts of Africa, where political and religious leaders have refused to reckon with the dangers posed by the pandemic. Moreover, little to no efforts were put into research to back initiatives led by African scientists on the continent. The efforts by Senegal and Rwanda are without any doubt a major step in the right direction, but more will be needed if Africa is to move from manufacturing to innovation.
Today, the hoarding of vaccines by western powers is also a rejection of science. It is predicated on the assumption that multiple jabs will protect western citizens from the Covid-19 variants emerging from countries that have failed to access vaccines as a result of the hoarding. This is happening despite the repeated warnings from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and experts that such behaviour could derail the progress made if the new variants proved to be resistant to the available vaccines. The hoarding is also predicated on the discredited assumption that closing borders to supposedly “unvaccinated” populations will stop the spread of these variants. Yet, if such health measures sufficed, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in today.
Between these extremes in Africa and in the West that have turned to obscurantism, Senegal and Rwanda’s partnership with BioNTech has come as a refreshing reminder that there is hope for humanity after all.
If the objective is to save lives, the World – not just Africa – also needs to learn from past mistakes. If the objective is to maintain the current world order, then lives will be lost. In both cases, Senegal and Rwanda’s leadership will be crucial in Africa’s fight for health security and dignity.
This article was extracted from Africa’s Health and Education magazine that’s currently on the stands.