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South Africa’s battle for Covid-19 vaccine

17 February 2021, Cyril Ramaphosa received the country’s first Covid-19 vaccine from Sister Milanie Bennet.  Both appeared nervous and Ramaphosa asked her what side-effects he might experience.  She talked him through the side-effects and offered him a chair, rolled up his sleeve and sterilised his arm.  As the needle pierced his skin, South Africans breathed a sigh of relief.  This first time during the Covid-19 pandemic.

South Africa had to face a lot of criticism for acting too late in acquiring a vaccine and also had to face immense global powers and companies who answer to money rather than solidarity.

It’s been a difficult road for other middle- to low-income countries, including South Africa.  Richer nations have bought up most of the world’s supply and with a lack of incentive to ramp up the manufacturing of vaccines, there is little left for these countries.

According to the United Nations, 10 nations have procured 75% of the globe’s available Covid-19 vaccines.  This situation has been compared to “pushing someone in the grocery store to get that last roll of toilet paper, like we did in the US”, according to Gregg Gonsalves – a global health activist, epidemiologist, assistant professor at Yale School of Public Health, and an associate professor at Yale Law School.  He says an international crisis is looming if this is not corrected.

According to Zain Rizvi, and expert on pharmaceutical innovation and access to medicines, who works at Public Citizen – a US-based public interest organisation which aims to hold those in power to account, this dilemma stems from countries and corporations who “failed to meet the needs of this moment”  He also said: “The global vaccine divide is going to have enormous consequences for economic development”

While COVAX was supposed to be a shining light for poorer countries to access vaccines, vaccine nationalism undermined these efforts.  Countries like South Africa are unable to get a substantial seat at the table and are unable to haggle over the price of vaccines according to Fatima Hassan, founder of the Health Justice Initiative in South Africa.

“Poor countries are always left out because first of all, they don’t have the public purse or the sway so that’s why they are disadvantaged and given that they were disadvantaged it would be incumbent that the countries that had most influence could make sure that the whole globe was sorted out because obviously, until you control the pandemic at a global level you can’t control it at a local level” Professor Glenda Gray, president of the SAMRC and lead investigator in the Johnson & Johnson trial.




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