The year 2020 will forever be synonymous with Covid-19, a pandemic that brought the world to her knees. For the first time in more than a generation, the world confronts a novel coronavirus, a monstrous pestilence that defied technology and innovation. Millions of people are infected, and hundreds of thousands killed in both the rich and the emerging countries. The infection is rampaging through communities, and in some places, the health infrastructure is overwhelmed.
The fight to confront and win the battle against COVID-19 is on and progressing, but the impact of these sophisticated medical advances is yet to be felt adequately.
Covid-19 is a real terror upon humanity. Communities shut down periodically, people avoid their family and friends, and in some cases are mandated by law to keep physical and social distances from one another. Events and large gatherings are postponed indefinitely or cancelled. Practically everyone wears a mask in public, or at least, is expected to do so. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, almost a quarter of the entire human population was on lockdown.
The economic impact has been devastating. The Covid-19 pandemic is a global shock ‘like no other’, involving simultaneous disruptions to both supply and demand in an interconnected world economy. On the supply side, infections reduce labour supply and productivity, while lockdowns, business closures, and social distancing also caused supply disruptions. On the demand side, layoffs, and the loss of income (from morbidity, quarantines, and unemployment) and worsened economic prospects reduced household consumption and firms’ investment.
Africa received the worst prediction concerning the Covid-19 pandemic. As hospitals across Europe and America were overwhelmed by Covid-19 and people died in tens of thousands despite their advanced medical facilities, there were genuine concerns about what would have happened to Africa if and when the novel coronavirus arrived on its shores. The African continent is known for dilapidated or non-existent healthcare facilities. Consequently, there were predictions of tens of millions of hospitalisations and millions of deaths in the continent.
For the fact that most of the continent adopted several measures like lockdowns to curtail the spread of Covid-9, Africa, like the rest of the world, was not spared the economic effects of the pandemic. But on the health and mortality angle, how exactly Africa was able to avoid the worst aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic has continued to be a subject of debate. Some scientists have attributed the lower hospitalisation and death rate to Africa’s younger demographics and lower comorbidity overall. Others have speculated that the consistent exposure of sub-Saharan Africans to malaria-treating drugs like Chloroquine has made so many people immune to Covid-19 as Hydroxyl chloroquine is one of the medications recommended by some doctors for the prevention and treatment of Covid-19.
Other unscientific speculations abound. For example, some argue that the hot, humid weather in Africa makes life very uncomfortable for the virus that causes Covid-19. Another one claims that most Africans have known acute suffering most of their lives that they have an inbuilt resistance to the novel Coronavirus, unlike their’ more brittle’ counterparts in Europe and North America.
Whatever it is, it is undeniable that the continent of Africa has mostly been spared the worst impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. At least for now. Africa continent, with a population of about 1.3 billion, has seen just under 2 million Covid-19 cases recorded so far and much fewer deaths (about 46,626) compared to Europe (about 325,899) or the North Americas (about 252,235).
The worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is behind Africa one hopes. As the cold weather in much of Europe and America leads most people to stay indoors, leading to record levels of infections and deaths and with another wave of lockdowns disrupting social life and economic activities, most of Africa seem to have moved beyond Covid-19.
In Nigeria, religious and social activities have mostly resumed, and most institutions and organisations are not as strict as earlier in enforcing health and safety measures like wearing of masks, washing of hands and the use of hand sanitiser at their offices and business premises. Walking in the streets of most African cities (Nigeria as well) today, one could see many people not wearing masks, in contrast to the situation about six months ago when not wearing a mask was a taboo.
Since Covid-19 became a pandemic, Scientists around the world started developing many potential vaccines for COVID-19. These vaccines are all designed to teach the body’s immune system to safely recognise and block the virus that causes COVID-19. Many pharmaceutical companies have been involved including Beijing MinhaiBiotechnology (China), Immunitybio and Nantkwest(USA), Reithera (Italy), CansinoBiologics/AMS(China), Vaxart (USA), Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich (Germany), Clover Biopharmaceuticals Inc., Gsk & Dynavax(Australia), Vaxine (Australia), University of Queensland & CSL Limited (Australia), Medigen (Taiwan), Finlay Vaccine Institute (Cuba) and Vector Institute (Russia) and others.
A close observation of this list would show that none of the companies listed is in Africa. Even though some may argue that the economic and developmental peculiarities of the continent could explain this, are these not excuses to justify our nonchalant attitude towards developing African solutions to African problems? We have thousands of research institutions and universities, why are they not engaged in research to either get a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19? Why wait for the West, as usual in many things, to proffer solutions and sometimes save us from ourselves?
What of our herbs and local concoctions, our homegrown solutions? In a continent with richest flora and fauna, why has the continent been unable to come up with the correct combination of leaves and roots that would either make one immune to Covid-19 or provide a cure for those infected with it? Why are governments and other institutions not supporting and funding such ventures?
At a time, there seemed to be some respite for Africa from Madagascar in the form of “Covid-Organics” — capsules containing extracts of a local Malagasy plant artemisia with proven anti-malarial properties and other indigenous herbs such as ravintsara. It was inspired by a national herbal infusion believed to be effective in curing and treating coronavirus infections. This was widely heralded, and countries such as Nigeria ordered for large quantities of it. However, as Covid-19 infection and deaths increased in this southern African country, its use was discarded by many countries. Since then, there has not been any notable homegrown Covid-19 vaccine or medicine from Africa. There were a few pretensions which were dismissed.
The “God of Africa “should be praised forever for whatever is the reason why the Covid-19 pandemic largely spared and continues to spare the continent. Most of Europe and the USA are currently decimated by a ravaging coronavirus aided by extremely cold weather. They are ecstatic about the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and Modena of which effectiveness is rated at over 90%. The mood in Africa is not that of much fanfare because the situation in the African continent is benign, and the virus seems subdued.
Africa’s preparedness for the vaccination, like in other matters that requires complex planning, is in question. There is the problem of access to the vaccines given that rich nations are tempted to stockpile for their citizens following the law of self-survival. The infrastructure for the vaccination is another problem. for example, Poor vaccine cold chain system has been a common and significant challenge of immunisation in Africa. Most vaccines must be stored at temperatures between 36°F to 46°F (2°C and 8°C), but in many parts of the continent the cold chain infrastructures are inadequate, and electricity is often unavailable or unreliable.
Adding to this challenge, some of the Covid-19 vaccines in development such as Pfizer’s and from Moderna (another mRNA technology vaccine expected to be as effective as Pfizer) requires storage and transport facilities that can maintain extremely cold temperature: about -112°F (-80°C)—colder than a regular deep freezer.
There is the additional logistical complication that the Pfizer vaccine requires two doses taken three weeks apart to be fully effective. In comparison, the Moderna vaccine requires two doses taken four weeks apart. These would provide enormous challenges to almost all African countries.
Another impediment is the issues of superstition, misinformation, credulity and illiteracy. A large population in Africa believes that the Covid-19 vaccine is being developed by Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, to depopulate the continent. Other religious fanatics infer that a certain ‘666’ would be injected into anyone who takes the vaccine. These kinds of attitudes and beliefs had impaired growth in the continent.
There is a need for good planning and proper resourcing of the vaccination project, starting from education and sensitisation to actual vaccination of millions of Africans. If we are not able to provide a homegrown solution to Covid 19, we should at least plan and prepare well for this historic vaccination project the world has ever seen. It will be preposterous if we fail on this too.
However, the additional cost of acquiring vaccines and the logistical burden of actual vaccination may increase Africa’s post Covid 19 economic woes. One way out is for the developed world through WHO and other international health agencies to bear the cost of vaccinating Africa using local personnel. This would be a more meaningful development assistance than dubious loans and Greek gifts. This may be acceptable if there is need for help from the West.
Africa needs to wake up to be counted among the comity of continents. It needs to show the world that what it lacked in scientific prowess it has in practical planning and implementation of projects. The vaccination of Africans by Africans and for Africans is a policy that must be adopted and properly implemented. Every government and institutions in Africa must learn from the Covid 19 pandemic. Africans should not leave the survival of our continent in the hands of others. Although globalisation ensures collective survival, however, in periods of extreme difficulties, those not prepared may be left behind and suffer dire consequences.
Note: Dr Dakuku Peterside, a writer, author and newspaper columnist is the immediate past Director General & CEO of NIMASA, and a former member of the House of Representatives.