'Vaccine apartheid': Africans tells UN they need vaccines

Source: Associated Press

The inequity of Covid-19 vaccine distribution came into sharp focus Thursday as many of the African countries whose populations have little to no access to the life-saving shots spoke at the UN's annual meeting of world leaders.

President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa speaks via video link during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations.

Some called for member states to relax intellectual property rights in order to expand vaccine production.

"No one is safe unless we are all safe," was the common refrain.

"The virus doesn't know continents, borders, even less nationalities or social statuses," Chad's president Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, told the General Assembly.

"The countries and regions that aren't vaccinated will be a source of propagating and developing new variants of the virus. In this regard, we welcome the repeated appeals of the United Nations secretary general and the director general of the (World Health Organization) in favour of access to the vaccine for all. The salvation of humanity depends on it."

The struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic has featured prominently in leaders' speeches over the past few days — many of them delivered remotely exactly because of the virus.

Country after country acknowledged the wide disparity in accessing the vaccine, painting a picture so bleak that a solution has at times seemed impossibly out of reach.

South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa pointed to vaccines as "the greatest defense that humanity has against the ravages of this pandemic."

"It is therefore a great concern that the global community has not sustained the principles of solidarity and cooperation in securing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines," he said.

"It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82 per cent of the world's vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1 per cent has gone to low-income countries."

He and others urged UN member states to support a proposal to temporarily waive certain intellectual property rights established by the World Trade Organization to allow more countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, to produce Covid-19 vaccines.

Angola president João Lourenço said it was "shocking to see the disparity between some nations and others with respect to availability of vaccines."

"These disparities allow for third doses to be given, in some cases, while, in other cases, as in Africa, the vast majority of the population has not even received the first dose," Lourenço said.

The US, Britain, France, Germany and Israel are among the countries that have begun administering boosters or announced plans to do so.

Namibia president Hage Geingob called it "vaccine apartheid," a notable reference given the country's own experience with apartheid when neighbouring South Africa's white minority government controlled South West Africa, the name for Namibia before its independence in 1990.

Benido Impouma, a programme director with the WHO's Africa program, noted during a weekly video news conference that the surge in new Covid-19 cases is starting to ease in Africa "but with 108,000 new cases, more than 3,000 lives lost in the past week and 16 countries still in resurgence, this fight is far from over."

"Fresh increases in cases should be expected in the coming months," Impouma said.

"Without widespread vaccination and other public and social measures, the continent's fourth wave is likely to be the worst, the most brutal yet."