Catholic Relief Services staff deliver the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination exercise organized by CRS-Ghana. CNS photo/Lawrence Quarcoo, Catholic Relief Services

As rich get boosters, Africa lacks vaccines

  • December 10, 2021

Canada’s ban on travel from southern Africa and the failure of rich countries to effectively share COVID-19 vaccines with the rest of the world has Jesuit Fr. Charles Chilufya steaming mad.

Chilufya is the co-ordinator of the Africa Task Force of the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission and director of the Justice and Ecology Office of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, known as JCAM. After South Africa detected and reported the new Omicron variant of the virus, Canada and a few other countries closed their borders to travellers from southern Africa. Canada also refused to accept South African COVID test results for returning Canadians, forcing them to obtain COVID tests in a third country.

But what really angers Chilufya, after 5.26 million deaths over 23 months from COVID, is that Canada and other rich countries have been happily vaccinating their populations and allowing Africa to languish in a vaccine desert.

“After so many warnings that if we don’t vaccinate the entire world we would get new variants that we may not be able to handle, such a type has been detected,” Chilufya told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “And the response of nations has been to isolate South Africa that has done good to detect the (Omicron) variant and did well to let the world know. ... We are angry.”

Omicron has been found in at least 44 countries around the world. Cases in Europe have been found that are unrelated to travel and indicate community transmission. Canada has not banned travel from European countries.

African vaccination rates remain low. Only 102 million people, or 7.5 per cent of the population, is fully vaccinated, according to the World Health Organization. More than 80 per cent of Africans still need to receive a first dose.

As of Dec. 3 Canada’s COVID task force was reporting 79 per cent of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated with 89.5 per cent having received at least one dose. Eligibility for third doses is expanding across the country. Just under six per cent of children aged five to 11 have been vaccinated.

As an economist, Chilufya is acutely aware of how uncontrolled COVID is tearing apart lives and livelihoods around the world.

“If we don’t achieve a 70-per-cent vaccination rate globally by mid-2022 we will lose more than $5 trillion in global economic losses over the next five years,” he said.

Chilufya has joined forces with health-care professionals and activists around the globe calling for suspension of certain patent protections so that vaccines can be produced in or near the countries that need them. Omicron travel bans have further frustrated those efforts.

“On account of the new travel restrictions due to the COVID Omicron variant, the World Trade Organization postponed a meeting where trade ministers planned to decide on vaccine access and production issues for developing countries,” he said. “An important feature of this meeting’s agenda was the waiving of the pharmaceutical company patents on COVID vaccines and treatments.”

Global Affairs Canada claims “Canada has supported the global effort to beat the pandemic from the very beginning.” Ottawa has committed to donating the equivalent of at least 200 million doses to the COVAX Facility by the end of 2022, including over 50 million vaccine doses that were determined to be in excess of domestic needs. COVAX is the global system set up by the WHO to ensure equitable access to vaccines.

“We need more than short-term reactions of vaccine donations,” Chilufya said. “What we have asked for, almost for a year or more, the patent waiver, is what will save unnecessary loss of lives, forestall another serious economic fallout and food shortages.”

Since May of 2020, the Canadian government has committed $1.3 billion to the World Health Organization’s effort to scale up vaccine distribution in poor countries. It has also loaded up the International Monetary Fund’s credit card with $3.7 billion in drawing rights which poor countries can use. This includes $982 million in funds to be distributed through the United Nations’ Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust.

“The Church calls on the remaining few nations to heed the call to save lives. To isolate countries like South Africa and others in the region is no solution,” said Chilufya. “The new variant has spread all across the globe and affirms what we have been told before — ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe.’ Rather than divide the world, we urge the rich nations to provide leadership and put in mechanisms to ensure that everyone is vaccinated.”

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