Coronavirus vaccines offer the world hope – unless you live in Africa

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Kenan Malik

The scandal of how anti-Covid drugs are being distributed should shame the rich countries that are hoarding them

A medical worker is injected with a potential vaccine against the Covid-19 in Soweto, South Africa.

A medical worker is injected with a potential vaccine against the Covid-19 in Soweto, South Africa. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/AFP/Getty ImagesSun 24 Jan 2021 06.15 GMT

Sixty million doses of Covid vaccines have been administered worldwide. That’s the good news. The bad news? All the people who have received a jab in Africa could fit comfortably on the top deck of a London bus. According to the World Health Organization, just 25 people, in a continent of 1.3bn, have been vaccinated. The 25 – in Guinea – are the only people in any low-income country to have received a Covid vaccine.

Some middle-income countries, most notably India, have set up ambitious vaccination programmes, but poorer countries have lost out. The Covax facility was set up to make vaccines globally available. It claims to have secured 200m doses from manufacturers and hopes to acquire 2bn doses in total. So far, none has been delivered.

Part of the problem is vaccine hoarding. The richest countries have ordered more than 4bn doses, often paying extra to jump the queue. That’s 16% of the world’s population acquiring 60% of the vaccines. Canada has ordered enough to cover its population five times over.

This is an issue of how a profits-based system fails when it comes to desperate social need

There’s also the problem of government incompetence – exemplified by South Africa – and a lack of infrastructure for distribution. But mostly it’s an issue of how a profit-based system fails when it comes to a desperate social need.

The difficulties have led some poorer countries to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies. South Africa has ordered 1.5m doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. But it’s paying $5.25 (£3.83) per dose – more than twice as much as European nations.

The creation of Covid vaccines is testament to scientific ingenuity. The scandal of its distribution is a demonstration of abject moral failure.

  • Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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