The prevailing consensus in Washington, and perhaps, Downing Street, is that African countries are too poor to vaccinate their citizens. This dire situation suggests (in President Biden’s and Prime Minister Johnson’s worldview) that Western countries, led by the United States of America, should send millions of vaccines in aid to Africa. And while this self-preserving attempt to support the vaccination of millions of Africans living in Africa is commendable, it underscores the prism from which Africa is viewed – a continent of hunger, starvation, and helpless citizens.
To be fair, there is enough evidence around the continent that supports this worldview. Less than 2% of the entire African population have been vaccinated compared to about 50% in Europe. It is worth mentioning that the slow pace of vaccinating African citizens can be explained by the mere fact that the continent imports 99% of its vaccine needs.
One would have thought that African governments would be embarrassed or, at least, have some shame, that Africans are almost entirely dependent on the West or China for their vaccine needs. Instead, the situation fits perfectly into their plan. Rather than make the complex changes and sacrifices required to develop the local production of standardized vaccines, African leaders prefer to go cap-in-hand to Beijing or Washington to plead for help.
But what can African leaders, Nigeria inclusive, do to reverse the unhealthy reliance on western countries and China for the importation of vaccines? First, African governments must develop a strategic plan to build their health sector and find the discipline and political will to follow through. This health sector strategic plan must include developing the drug industry and an industrialization policy that would support the production of standardized drugs and vaccines at a scale that supports a nation’s public health policy.
Equally important is the deliberate development of human capital. This has been Africa’s bane and Achilles heel. With many African health workers and scientists relocating out of the continent for greener pastures, African governments will need to adopt a deliberate policy of investing massively in the training and welfare of its health care professionals. This literally means investing in schools, refining the educational curriculum, and training teachers at all levels. Without a critical mass of talented workforce, it would prove difficult, if not impossible, to implement a strategic health sector development plan.
Critical investments must also be made in research and development, without which the needed innovation will never happen. African governments have often concerned themselves with short-term initiatives that either consolidate their hold on power or gives them considerable leverage in upcoming elections. This has to change. Making substantial investments in research and development is often a mid- to long-term approach towards inspiring the technology and innovation required to solve present and future health challenges.
Finally, the production of drugs and vaccines is enabled by specific industrialization policies that support standardized and affordable vaccines that can serve a country’s needs. Thankfully, Senegal, having learned valuable lessons from their experience with Ebola and Covid, is now constructing a new plant in Dakar that is projected to produce 25 million doses of the vaccine by the end of 2022. Other African countries, especially Nigeria, must follow this lead. Africans have had enough of the cap-in-hand diplomacy its leaders have played for over 40 years.