Critics Decry ‘Preventable Mass Death’ in Africa as Rich Nations ‘Just Sit Back and Watch’

“Our priority is clear,” said a top WHO official. “it’s crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of Covid-19.”

By Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 6-8-2021

Photo: WHO

Months into a debate at the World Trade Organization over suspending patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines in order to end the global pandemic, the delay has left Africa facing a third wave of deadly infections as countries across the continent confront dwindling supplies of vaccines.

As The Guardian reported Tuesday, eight countries have seen cases rise by more than 30% in the last week and officials have raised alarm over possible looming shortages of hospital beds and oxygen, unless the outbreaks can be brought under control.

“In this wave, the intensity of severe and critically ill Covid-19 patients, and deaths is higher than what we experienced in the first wave of the pandemic,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Sunday.

The country has recorded nearly 53,000 Covid-19 cases and 383 deaths, but officials say that fatalities in Uganda and across Africa have likely been vastly undercounted due to low Covid-19 testing numbers.

The continent has seen nearly five million coronavirus cases and has reported more than 130,000 deaths—nearly 4% of worldwide deaths from the virus.

Uganda is expecting three million vaccine doses from COVAX, the U.N.-backed facility tasked with getting doses to developing countries, but has received only one million so far as it recorded a 131% weekly increase in Covid-19 infections last week.

Fewer than 2% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have received vaccine doses, and while wealthy countries like the U.S. have started vaccinating children as young as 12 to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to vulnerable populations, many African countries are struggling to get second doses of the vaccines to high-risk groups, leaving them only partially inoculated.

Four African countries—Eritrea, Tanzania, Burundi, and Chad—have yet to begin administering any vaccinations.

“The threat of a third wave in Africa is real and rising,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, regional director for Africa at the World Health Organization (WHO), told The Guardian. “Our priority is clear—it’s crucial that we swiftly get vaccines into the arms of Africans at high risk of falling seriously ill and dying of Covid-19.”

The third wave of the pandemic is spreading across the continent as progressive organizations and public health experts double-down on demands that the WTO suspend patents for Covid-19 treatments and vaccines, a possibility the organization has been weighing for months.

As Common Dreams reported Monday, consumer advocacy group Public Citizen slammed the European Union’s intention “to block negotiations that the rest of the world supports to temporarily waive intellectual property (IP) barriers to end the pandemic and save lives” at the TRIPS Council meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Dozens of countries have come out in support of a waiver since the Biden administration announced it backed temporarily lifting patent protections in early May, but the E.U., Germany, and the U.K. are continuing to block the measure.

“The EU has so far refused to engage in productive discussions on the proposal and continues to instead rally for voluntary measures by pharmaceutical corporations, which so far have shown limited success,” said Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) on Monday, with the group’s international medical secretary, Dr. Maria Guevara, calling on world governments to “do everything in their power to make sure that every country has the best chance to save as many lives as possible throughout this pandemic.”

Amid repeated calls for global cooperation to stop the pandemic in its tracks, said Global Justice Now director Nick Dearden, the international response to the third wave in Africa amounts to “preventable mass death that rich governments just sit back and watch.”

More than 100 countries, over 400 lawmakers in the U.K. and the E.U., and 175 Nobel laureates have joined public health experts at the WHO and other global organizations to call for patent waivers. More than 60 countries have expressed support for a revised waiver proposal by South African and Indian officials, which is being debated at this week’s two-day meeting.

“Europe must stop standing in the way of fair vaccine distribution,” said Oxfam E.U. on Tuesday. “People in low-income countries can’t be left waiting for half a century for their vaccine.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). 
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