Every time I see a call from home, my heart sinks. I always fear that they’re ringing to say that my grandmother has died. She has been on a ventilator for four weeks and my anxiety is near breaking point. The dreaded call could come at any time: Covid-19. Again.
Even at 96, my Kenyan grandmother was among hundreds of millions in the developing world who was not vaccinated until recently because rich nations have hoarded most of the available shots. Though I’m more than 60 years younger than her, I was fully inoculated by April because I was living in the United States, where anybody over 12 can get a vaccine if they want one.
The acute shortage of doses for the world’s poorest people has been called “vaccine apartheid,” “greed” and a “catastrophic moral failure.” Yet the public shaming has made little real difference, and Africa has received the fewest vaccines in the globe so far.
Around half of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Here in Kenya, that figure stands at just 1.1% of the population. While wealthy countries are dropping all restrictions and reopening their societies because most adults are fully inoculated, new cases are rising at the fastest rate ever across Africa, where very few people are vaccinated.
The West has stockpiled more vaccines than they will ever need, with deals brokered by several countries enabling them to buy enough doses to vaccinate each of their citizens several times over. At the start of the year North American countries had purchased enough doses to fully vaccinate the region’s population more than twice, while African countries had only secured enough does to cover a third of the continent’s population. The world’s youngest nation South Sudan has now completely run out of vaccines and shut down its program because it doesn’t know when it will get more shots.
Of the 3.5 billion people already vaccinated worldwide, only 1.6% are in African countries. New cases have been surging for eight straight weeks on the continent, leading to a fresh wave of lockdowns, overwhelmed healthcare systems, lost livelihoods and – worst of all – a large death toll. In the past week alone, fatalities were up more than 40%. Many of these could have been prevented if more Africans were vaccinated.
Unable to mourn
I had just finished filming at a crammed ICU treating critical Covid-19 patients in Uganda’s capital of Kampala last month when I learned that my uncle Justus had himself died of the virus across the border in Kenya. I was heartbroken, and angry. He was not vaccinated because Kenya didn’t – and still does not – have enough shots even for a senior like him.
Justus was buried within 48 hours as the Kenyan government requires. He was the third family member who had died in the pandemic that I didn’t get a chance to mourn properly or see laid to rest.
In the west of Kenya, where my grandmother lives and where my uncle died, they’re under state of emergency-like conditions as the Delta variant surges through the region. This is another body blow for an impoverished region in a country that has lived with a nationwide curfew since late March 2020.
Like everywhere else in the world, pandemic fatigue is sweeping through Africa. The difference here is that people can’t afford to ignore common sense public health measures, because we don’t have the luxury of a widespread vaccine rollout and herd immunity to protect us.
“And because people are dying every day, that’s why I say that a vaccine delayed is a vaccine denied,” Dr. Gitahi Githinji, group CEO of Amref Health Africa, told CNN.
Africans left perplexed by reluctance in the West
Rwanda has probably the most stringent social distancing and mask regulations I’ve seen anywhere on the continent yet the east African nation has been forced into another strict lockdown to try to blunt the force of a vicious third wave of infections. The country followed all World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and appeared to do everything right, but still got overrun by coronavirus cases, because only vaccines provide true protection. With only around 2% of Rwandans vaccinated, this may not be the country’s last lockdown.
Many people I’ve met in the five African countries I’ve visited in the past few weeks are baffled by the resistance to vaccines in the West. I watched coverage of protests in Europe against vaccination rules with a friend in Nairobi. “Can they give us those vaccines they don’t want?” she asked.
Some Americans are even getting bribed with beer, doughnuts or cash to get Covid-19 shots when many Africans would happily take them for free if they were available. While the world’s wealthiest appear to be entering a post-pandemic life, the rest of us in the Global South are still in the throes of a devastating crisis with no way out for the foreseeable future. The highly transmissible Delta variant has now been detected in 21 African countries, and counting.
Global health authorities have warned that during a global pandemic nobody is safe until everybody is safe. Yet vaccine inequity means that new virus strains could emerge in Africa and spread quickly to the rest of the world, rendering any mass vaccination gains elsewhere ineffective.
A continent abandoned
The biggest lesson for Africa, some leaders here say, is that it is on its own, and there’s no such thing as global solidarity when people are at their most vulnerable.
“As a continent, we must stop believing that there’s anybody out there who’s a Biblical Good Samaritan who’s just about to come help us,” Kenya’s health minister Mutahi Kagwe told me in May. “This is a situation where we’ve seen very clearly that’s its everyone for himself or for herself and God for us all.”
Countries such as Kenya rely on COVAX, a WHO effort to provide Covid-19 vaccines at subsidized cost to lower and middle-income nations, but it is underfunded and the need is far greater than the small drip of shots that are available to distribute.
Long after the richest parts of the world have won the war on the pandemic, Africa could be the last place on earth still battling against a vicious virus with no arms or ammunition. The oft-repeated mantra that “we’re in this together” rings hollow when a privileged few have more vaccines than they need and a great many have nothing.
By the time my grandmother got vaccinated by local officials it was already too late as she had been infected by Covid-19. She outlived her husband, my paternal grandfather, by more than 25 years, yet we’re now coming to terms that she might not survive this disease. All I needed to get protection was walk to a nearby drugstore in Washington, DC. But many people like my grandmother have died, or will die, because of the accident of where they live. Her heart is now failing, and mine is breaking.