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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Finding ways out of Africa’s COVID

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Editor’s note: Stephen Ndegwa is a Nairobi-based communication expert, lecturer-scholar at the United States International University-Africa, author and international affairs columnist. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

In the last couple of weeks, the world has seen a glimmer of light at the end of the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic nightmare after a few companies announced a Eureka moment in the earnest search for a vaccine.

The first news of a potentially effective vaccine was announced by the U.S.-German collaboration of pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech on November 9, which announced that preliminary studies had shown that the vaccine could prevent people from getting infected with the virus by up to 95 percent.

Pfizer said that it would manage to produce 6.4 million doses of its vaccine for distribution within the U.S. by mid-December, with over one billion by the end of 2021.

There have been subsequent announcements of new vaccines in the offing, with the manufacturers giving the same 2020/2021 timeline for production and delivery. Therefore, it goes that soon, after the necessary approval and licenses, there will be enough vaccines to start the biggest ever immunization in human history.

This has brought an upbeat mood across the world that normalcy could resume faster than earlier feared. But this is just half the story.

Like any other product, it would be of no use to have millions of vaccines in storage facilities while millions of people in some parts of the world remain unprotected due to lack of access. 

While the vulnerable have been identified as a top priority in the vaccination exercise, the reality might be quite different in regions like Africa, which is yet to announce any vaccine development breakthrough.

Although countries like China have promised to provide their vaccine as a public good in the region, reaching everyone in the corner of the continent might be a herculean task.

In a statement released from Brazzaville on November 26 titled, “WHO urges African countries to ramp up readiness for COVID-19 vaccination drive”, the World Health Organization warned that “analysis finds that Africa is far from ready for what will be the continent’s largest-ever immunization drive.”

WHO’s Vaccine Readiness Assessment Tool, which has been shared with all the 47 countries within the body’s purview, covers 10 key areas, namely, planning and coordination, resources and funding, vaccine regulations, service delivery, training and supervision, monitoring and evaluation, vaccine logistics, vaccine safety, and surveillance and communications and community engagement.

Going by self-assessment using the tool by 40 of the 47 countries under the WHO, the African region has an average score of 33 percent readiness for a COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, which is well below the desired benchmark of 80 percent.

Administering the COVID-19 vaccination in Africa will be coordinated under COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access), bringing together Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, among other partners.

The statement by WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti painted a rather gloomy picture that the vaccine will not reach those who need it most in the continent if leaders do not address the structural and systemic shortcomings that are bound to hinder effective distribution.

“The largest immunization drive in Africa’s history is right around the corner, and African governments must urgently ramp up readiness. Planning and preparation will make or break this unprecedented endeavor,” she said. 

“We need active leadership and engagement from the highest levels of government with solid, comprehensive national coordination plans and systems put in place,” she added.

Although it is not debatable that Africa’s modus operandi is below the global benchmark, experts are of the view that the continent can use ingenuity to cover up the shortfalls.

Indeed, Africa already has the basic infrastructure for the distribution task from past health initiatives. 

For instance, many African countries have a strong network that has been used previously in the fight against HIV and AIDS and the polio vaccination campaigns, which target children below five years. In both instances, health authorities have managed, over the years, to reach at least half of the population in countries where they undertake programs.

Authorities can also use templates that are usually used for the registration of persons for identity cards or during elections. Again, these two exercises usually reach the ground, with almost everyone managing to get into the databases.

The weak link in the entire vaccination ecosystem is the shortage of finances. With adequate financial resources, African countries can build on the existing infrastructure in their respective healthcare systems to deliver adequate numbers in the immunization campaign within a reasonable timeframe.

Ultimately, Africa has to work more in opening up and developing both its terrestrial and digital systems and operations in order to be more in sync with global trends and standards. The COVID-19 vaccination challenge comes with a silver lining, as it will expose the existing gaps that need to be filled.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com.)

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