The author is the co-chair of the African Union and the African Vaccine Delivery Alliance, and the former Chief Humanitarian Coordinator of Nigeria
In the competition between variants and vaccines, the emergence of Omicron may be the decisive moment of this pandemic. This virus is waging war on all of us-devastating our bodies, economies and societies. The situation on some continents is worse than that on others, especially Africa. Just this week, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa accused rich countries of hoarding vaccines they don’t need and only giving poorer countries “debris on the table”, thus creating “vaccine apartheid”.
In order to win the war, we must fight on all fronts through diagnosis, treatment and vaccines. Just as multilateralism was formed after World War II, Covid-19 needs to deconstruct old ways of thinking and new perspectives on our future. The task is urgent. If we don’t start now, we will have to fight this virus from Omicron to Omega. It is wrong and simplistic to think that the low vaccination rate in Africa as a whole-less than 8% of the total 1.3 billion people are vaccinated-is due to hesitation rather than supply.
We are experiencing the wider effects of the virus everywhere. Global economic growth and trade are suppressed, interest rates are expected to rise, commodity prices fluctuate, and macroeconomic uncertainties are contributing to the debt crisis. However, although developed countries can implement safety nets, such as vacation plans, low-income countries can hardly provide ballast for their citizens. Poverty and inequality rates in countries such as Uganda and Mozambique have been rising, and the development achievements of the past 20 years have been wiped out by the virus. The gap between rich and poor countries is widening, and if a new wave of infections, new travel bans and declining confidence hinder recovery, the gap will continue to widen.
Women and girls bear the brunt. Throughout Africa, girls drop out of school, thereby widening the education gap, while early marriages in Nigeria have increased, and sexual and gender-based violence in South Africa has also increased. All of these emphasize the importance of promoting tolerance through restoration.
The full impact of long-term Covid is not yet known, but the impact on young people and economic activists throughout the west is already obvious. Reconstruction requires a healthy, educated workforce. Do people who have not been vaccinated in low-income countries really have a chance to reap the demographic dividend? Demographic disasters are more likely.
The consequences of the global northern countries acting purely for their own national interests are terrible. Decisions rooted in politics rather than science have led to reactive policies such as travel bans and stockpiling vaccines, which have isolated less privileged countries in unnecessary and biased ways. These decisions were made in the absence of comprehensive data on Omicron.
In order to reverse the regression to poverty and economic instability, we need to build global institutions that can support the backward countries of the global South. Organizations such as the G20 need greater tolerance in decision-making. More people should be invited to the top table to discuss who can travel, who is banned, who is vaccinated at what time, and who lives and dies in the end.
We can first distribute vaccines more effectively around the world, share production technologies, and implement intellectual property exemptions to allow local production. The asymmetric travel restrictions that have a disproportionate impact on African countries must be lifted immediately. These actions will reduce inequality and strengthen collective recovery. Global leaders should have taken responsible actions long ago.