This has been a devastating year for communities across Africa. Millions were exposed to the direct and the indirect social and economic impact of the pandemic, which revealed the acute weaknesses of health systems through the continent. Loved ones fell sick and died. Children lost time in class, and millions of people were further marginalized by economic downturns and lock downs.
Long-term development challenges, poverty, wars and violence and the increasing impact of climate change have been exacerbated by the impacts of COVID-19. Today, second waves and virus variants underscore how precarious the situation is globally. A growing number of effective vaccines bring hope, but controlling this virus will only be possible if everyone is included in vaccination efforts.
It is a moral imperative that Africa’s access to needed vaccines is drastically improved, but also that COVID vaccination campaigns do not come at the cost of other key health concerns. Vaccination programs for other diseases must continue. The fast spread of the 501Y.V2 variant underscores a now-common phrase: No one is safe until everyone is safe. Given the global character of the pandemic, equitable access to its vaccine today is a critical step towards more equitable access to vaccines more generally.
There are three main reasons the world must ensure Africa is not forgotten: First is the humanitarian imperative: Every life is important. Second is the epidemiological argument: Pockets of unvaccinated people can lead to viral replication and the possible emergence of variants that vaccines don’t cover. And third is the economic argument: The impact of COVID-19 will continue to harm local, national and global economies. Vaccinating vulnerable groups across the globe makes economic sense.
Once countries get more vaccines, it is crucial that authorities also prioritize displaced people, migrants and refugees; those in detention; and those who live in areas under non-government control. Some 70 percent of the territory of Central African Republic lies outside of government control, for instance. The ICRC stands ready to help with vaccine roll-outs with Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and other partners.
Rolling out the vaccine to all communities across Africa will undoubtedly be a major challenge when transportation issues, cold-chain issues, and a lack of trained health workers are considered. This is the moment to recognize that COVID-19 is an additional health threat to these communities. It is also an opportunity: Our efforts must be comprehensive and respond to the broad health challenges of populations. And they must be inclusive. If we don’t listen to communities and address their priorities and life-saving needs, we will encounter resistance and not achieve what we hope to.
Peter Maurer is the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).