The discovery of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 prompted new public health measures and travel restrictions from many Western governments, including the UK. Countries in Southern Africa were the first to be added to the UK’s red list – putting further pressure on a part of the world that is already struggling to fend off the pandemic, and facing limited access to the vaccines that represent the only viable way out.
By the end of the year, manufacturers will have produced sufficient doses to vaccinate the world. In high-income countries, 147 doses have been administered for every 100 people; in low-income countries, the equivalent figure is seven. Less than 8% of Africa's population is fully vaccinated. The emergence of the Omicron variant was not just predictable: it was preventable. As long as a significant minority of the world remains unvaccinated, further mutations are inevitable.
At a press conference on Saturday, 27th November, PM Boris Johnson congratulated the UK on how much it had done to ensure global vaccine equity. And while there is much to be proud of, as things stand, the UK has not delivered on its promise to share doses with lower-income countries: to date, the UK has provided only 11% of the doses pledged. There is much more we could be doing to bridge the appalling gap in global coverage: including sharing more doses and heeding calls for the waiver of intellectual property rules.
Mr Johnson also blamed low rates of coverage in Africa on vaccine hesitancy. Our colleagues and the frontline health workers we support, working across the continent, have a very different perspective. Speaking to CNN International on Sunday, 28th November, our Group CEO Dr Githinji Gitahi said: "Let us not frame this as a demand issue: it is purely a supply issue, and as the vaccines become available we are seeing that people [in Africa] are accepting them."
The current picture (stats: Our World in Data and ONE Aftershocks)
As of 6th January, 2022
Selective travel bans are a short-term, sticking-plaster measure that only perpetuates the divide between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. South Africa should be lauded for detecting and reporting the variant, enabling other countries to take informed steps towards stopping its spread. The region should not be isolated for doing the right thing.
It has long been clear that until the pandemic is over everywhere, it will not be over anywhere. As the UK branch of Africa's leading health NGO, we urge the British government to do more than the minimum.
If we truly want to be Global Britain, we must be willing to step up and set the example for other nations.
The UK can and must do more to achieve #VaccineSolidarity.