Africa ramps up vaccine drive as COVID cases surge

Published : August 14, 2021 16:51 IST

African countries are seeking to accelerate vaccination programs in a bid to curb rising infections. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Africa has vaccinated more than 50 million people against COVID-19. However, that figure is way below other continents. As a result, countries such as Kenya and Rwanda are pushing for partial vaccination mandates.

During pre-pandemic times, Zimbabwe's famous Victoria Falls attracted 350,000 tourists annually. However, during the COVID travel restrictions, that number has fallen to almost zero. In a bid to reverse that trend and reassure visitors that the World Heritage Site on the Zambezi River is a safe destination, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa made vaccines available to the 35,000 inhabitants who reside near the waterfall.

As the southern African nation grapples with rising infections, health officials credit the vaccination campaign in Victoria Falls for shielding the residents against the latest wave.

But Victoria Falls is one of Africa's rare vaccination success stories. In many countries, lack of doses, vaccine hesitancy, myths, misinformation, and disinformation, have slowed the pace of getting shots into the arms of the continent's 1.3 billion people. Tanzania, for example, has vaccinated only 106,000 people after it started its long-overdue inoculation exercise at the end of July under President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

"I have agreed on my own volition to be vaccinated, knowing in any case I have been living with many other vaccines in my body for the last 61 years," the Tanzanian leader said after she received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson.

Mandatory vaccination for Kenya's civil servants

Kenya's government has mandated all public servants to get vaccinated by August 23 or face disciplinary action. Joseph Kinyua, head of the country's public service, says that public servants' hesitancy to accept the COVID jab hinders service delivery in the East African nation.

Irene, a public servant who gave only her first name for fear of reprisal, told DW that she disagrees with the government. "We don't even know whether the vaccine is safe for all people to use," Irene said, adding that some people develop complications. "There is that fear among people and lack of trust in the vaccine."

Tom Mboya Odege, a leader of the civil servants union, said it was wrong to force vaccines on people. "The government came out clearly and said that vaccinating people is optional," Odege, who is also a lawmaker, said. He argued that it is essential to advocate the importance of being vaccinated, "but we cannot make it a law and threaten people with disciplinary action if they don't go for vaccination."

According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), Kenya has administered nearly 2 million doses, which translates to just about 1.7 per cent of its 53 million citizens.

Vincent Titanji, emeritus professor of biochemistry and biotechnology at the University of Buea in Cameroon, said vaccine hesitancy, availability and logistical challenges are some of the main obstacles hindering Africa's campaign.

"But there are countries like Kenya, South Africa and Ghana that are doing very well in vaccine uptake," Titanji told DW.

Rwanda hints at compulsory vaccination

In a sign of things to come, Rwandan Local Government Minister Jean Marie Vianney Gatabazi said on state television that public servants could be required to get jabs before resuming work in the office. "Very soon, vaccination will be mandatory for public sector employees who want to work from the offices so as to make sure the workplace is safe," Gatabazi said, adding that there won't be an excuse once the vaccinations are available.

Titanji said he agreed that there should be a mandate for those working on the front line and for the men and women in uniform."Those who do not want to be vaccinated should be subjected to frequent testing," Titanji said.

Kigali Today, a news website, reported that the Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) had launched a door-to-door vaccination exercise for people 60 and older. The nation of approximately 13 million people has vaccinated 729,000 people against COVID as of August 12. However, nearly 900 others have succumbed to the coronavirus since Rwanda detected the first case on March 14, 2020.

Nigeria to resume vaccination

Nigeria announced that it would restart COVID-19 inoculations on August 16. The exercise had been on hold since July 9 because there were no more supplies. Africa's most populous nation received 4 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and is expecting shipments of Johnson & Johnson.

So far, Nigeria has vaccinated only a tiny fraction of its 200 million citizens. Yet, despite rising COVID cases blamed on the highly contagious Delta variant, Abuja has ruled out imposing a lockdown. Nigeria has recorded about 175,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, but the actual figures could be much higher due to insufficient testing.

Titanji said a survey at the beginning of his year revealed that conspiracy theories are one of the main factors why many Africans are reluctant to get vaccinated. "They are so many of them circulating in social media about what harm vaccines can cause and all kinds of unproven theories," Titanji said. The professor urged health officials to increase education so that people are informed about what vaccines contain, what they can do, and how safe and effective they are,

"I have been vaccinated together with my entire family, and people can see that two or three months since we were vaccinated, nobody has dropped dead," Titanji said. He called on [people wishing to assist Africa in the fight against the pandemic to help build the continent's capacity to produce vaccines locally.

AU pushes for locally produced vaccines

According to the African Union, the continent is gearing up to vaccinate 400 million people after receiving Johnson & Johnson vaccines produced in South Africa. Strive Masiyiwa, the AU's coordinator on vaccine acquisition, has urged pharmaceutical companies to bring vaccine production to Africa.

"We prefer that they license producers in Africa rather than to produce under contract," Masiyiwa said. "We want to be treated the same way as they produce in India. If they can produce under license in India, they should be able to produce under license in Africa."

According to Titanji, when Africa starts producing vaccines locally and the people get to know the rigorous process that went into it, then the vaccines would be easily accepted.

Most of Africa's remaining vaccines are expected to come from the COVAX program, backed by the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). African countries have also benefited from bilateral donations from the United States and other countries, as well as the European Union.

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