Colonial-era privilege is hampering the fight against COVID-19

Colonial-era privilege is hampering the fight against COVID-19

Colonial-era privilege is hampering the fight against COVID-19
A man walks past newspaper billboards during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Johannesburg, South Africa, Feb. 8, 2021. (Reuters)
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High rates of vaccination and the hot summer weather in the Northern Hemisphere have given many in the West new hope for an end to coronavirus disease (COVID-19). It is tempting people to chart new life paths as they get a glimpse of what they believe to be a post-pandemic future.
It is an illusion. The failure of wealthy nations to help vaccinate developing countries in a manner that matches vaccination programs in the West threatens the very success the rich believe is at hand. Large swathes of the Global South, including most of Africa, are in the grips of a new wave of COVID-19 infections. It is foolish of the West to think it can return to normality when new virus variants continue to emerge because not enough people around the globe are being vaccinated.
A map of well-vaccinated and under-vaccinated nations might draw comparisons to the atlases of the early 20th century, showing colonial countries.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized nation, is a prime example of the worrying trend. With the onset of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and a dismal vaccination rate, it is currently in the grips of its third wave of infections, which is proving to be the deadliest yet. Hospitals in Johannesburg are running out of beds and oxygen as the country battles the delta variant. There is talk of renewed hard lockdowns but no clear plan to fight the infections other than to wait out this wave and hope for more vaccines.
It will be a long wait.
One reason for this is the failure of the Covax vaccine procurement program to achieve its initial goals. Launched a year ago, it was heralded as an “unparalleled and ambitious” effort to create a global procurement mechanism to ensure all countries received supplies of COVID-19 vaccines. Ninety-two of the world’s poorest and middle-income nations were supposed to receive vaccines at no cost. High-income countries would pay for them through Covax. Together, the two arms of the mechanism were intended to guarantee an orderly roll out of vaccines across the world.
Instead, wealthy nations began to sign deals directly with vaccine makers even before the jabs were ready. And because governments initially could not be sure which would work, they bought from multiple pharmaceutical companies, reserving more doses than they needed.
Meanwhile, Covax began making concessions to rich countries, allowing them to choose which vaccine they would receive under the program and then later letting them purchase enough doses for up to 50 percent of their populations. Poorer countries, however, would still only get enough for up to 20 percent of their populations.
All of the above has been the mechanism through which wealthy nations have been able to hoard most of the available doses. Just 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all COVID vaccines produced so far. This is what has allowed the West to glimpse the possibility of a return to normality — most often celebrated on social media as the ability to visit a bar for a pint or two; to go on holiday, perhaps even abroad; to visit sports arenas and fitness facilities. Meanwhile, in India, South Africa, the Philippines and other less wealthy nations, dystopian scenes persist.
The failure of Covax cannot be explained away by greed alone. An article in medical journal The Lancet explains that “global health experts point to (Covax’s) failure to recognize supply constraints as a major obstacle to global vaccination and emphasize diversifying and scaling up manufacturing from the beginning. This lack of recognition was a serious flaw in the Covax design.”
With Covax so greatly compromised, there are new efforts afoot to supply emerging markets with vaccines. France, commendably, and the World Health Organization announced on June 22 that they will help South Africa set up a vaccine production facility. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that Africa now understood that vaccines will “never come” from elsewhere in time to save lives. Therefore, his country — and the continent — needs to start producing its own.
He may be right. However, the initiative will be too late to treat the current wave of infections sweeping the continent — and may even be too late for this pandemic as a whole. Moreover, while South Africa may have the soft and hard infrastructure to build a vaccine facility, most emerging countries do not.
This, in fact, speaks to the persistence of post-colonial trade protocols that have outlasted formal empires. Seven decades since the beginning of the end of the European empires in Africa, the modus operandi remains to buy commodities cheap from the continent and other former colonies and then ship them back as finished products.
At best, the Global North’s multinationals might deign to build a factory in an emerging economy to take advantage of cheap, low-skill labor. But there has been no rush to transfer enough of the kind of technology that might have created an indigenous pharmaceutical company capable of carrying out high-level research and development in Africa.
It is particularly precious of rich nations to say that they are protecting intellectual property, when they feel no compunction about their mining companies, for example, carting off a poor country’s natural resources that have been ripped out of the ground in a devastating rape of the land.
Understandably, then, many Western countries, and indeed many of their citizens, have little problem disregarding the health and well-being of “the rest.” Fair-weather friends might have talked up the idea of us all being citizens of one world, like an unending refrain from the Live Aid anthem — but when the chips are down, it is another story.
Yet they do this at their peril. Faced with a global pandemic that does not recognize borders, no one is safe until everyone is safe. The West — its governments and its peoples — must recognize that the virus raging in emerging countries threatens the global community, threatens them.

A map of well-vaccinated and under-vaccinated nations might draw comparisons to the atlases of the early 20th century, showing colonial countries.

Joseph Dana

International efforts such as Covax spectacularly failed because wealthier nations focused on themselves instead of a global fight. The reality is that the virus will bite back hard through the variants currently incubating in countries left with no vaccines. In the absence of sound multilateral protocols, the fight against COVID-19 is bound to go on.
In Brooklyn and in London they might think they have spied a future free of the virus — but unless that vision becomes manifest in Mumbai, Dakar and Cape Town, too, it is a mirage.
COVID-19 is caused by a virus. But our inability to adequately and properly confront it comes from a legacy of imperial privilege. This is an even bigger battle we must wage in order to make the future more secure.

  • Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its effects on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact. Copyright: Syndication Bureau
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