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Covid-19 must not become ‘yet another disease of poverty’ – Bill and Melinda Gates

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:02

Vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Cairo
A nurse prepares a dose of the vaccine against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a mass immunization venue inside Cairo University, in Cairo, Egypt, September 8, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has released its fifth annual Goalkeepers Report, which this year documents the pandemic’s impact on progress towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It argues that Africa should be able to refocus on the bigger development challenges in the months ahead, as long as it builds on health innovation and growing strength in laboratories and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

This year, as countries have struggled to stay afloat economically, and many countries have been largely thrown into austerity.

“If we can expand upon the best of what we’ve seen these past 18 months, we can finally put the pandemic behind us and once again accelerate progress in addressing fundamental issues”, write Bill and Melinda Gates.

The report documented the brutal impact the pandemic has had in African; 90% of malaria cases are found in Africa and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has predicted that covid-related disruptions could have set progress against the disease back ten years.

© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The report also covers the widely reported gap in vaccine distribution; as countries like France offer vulnerable citizens a booster to fight against the delta variant, many African countries have vaccinated less than two percent of their population.

In Africa, only 48 million people in a population of 1.3bn have received a vaccine, mainly due to vaccine hoarding in more economically developed countries and vaccine hesitancy. Currently, 41.5% of the world population has received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine. Despite the continent being home to 17% of the world’s populations, it has less than 1% of the world’s vaccine manufacturing capabilities, relying on organisations like AVAT and COVAX to provide supplies.

“The lack of equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is a public health tragedy,” says Gates. “We face the very real risk that in the future, wealthy countries and communities will begin treating COVID-19 as yet another disease of poverty. We can’t put the pandemic behind us until everyone, regardless of where they live, has access to vaccines.”

African innovation

Some countries have had to take alternative measures to upkeep the health of their population – in Senegal they had previously significantly improved conditions for children – cutting under-five mortality by more than half. Whilst Covid-19 has threatened to undermine that progress, health workers have combated overall vaccine hesitancy by adapting their approach for different localities and contacting people directly by text message.

Pioneers such as Zimbabwe’s sole billionaire Strive Masiyiwa have thrown many African communities a lifeline; as an special envoy for the African Union he has helped African nations get the needed vaccines to avoid a growing crisis.

© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Masiyiwa has also developed the African Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP), which enables nations easy access to supplies like PPE and ventilators. “The global supply was so limited and it became a battle. Africa was edged out,” said Masiyiwa. He has since been highly critical of the “political” vaccine distribution process, as richer nations are “pushing their way to the front of the queue to secure production assets”.

At present the African vaccine market represents only 5.5% of the global vaccine market. However, despite the evident inequity in vaccine distribution, Africa has been a hub of progress, with organisations creating a genomic surveillance network, the Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative, to sequence widespread viruses like Ebola and yellow fever.

South African science pioneers

After the pandemic hit the network was vital, with Dr Penny Moore in South Africa being one of the first scientists to discover that a covid variant identified in the country could bypass the immune system. This evidenced the benefit that investment in low and middle income countries could have, allowing them to collect mutually beneficial data that has helped identify various variants. Investment in organisations like this will mean that African nations will be far less likely to be sidelined in a future pandemic.

The pandemic has also disproportionately impacted women, with disproportionate job losses and the impact on education often leaving women to stay at home and educate, it has increased the economic gender divide in many countries. “Women face structural barriers in every corner of the world, leaving them more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic,” said Melinda Gates. “By investing in women now and addressing these inequities, governments can spur a more equitable recovery while strengthening their economies against future crises. It’s not just the right thing to do—but smart policy that will benefit everyone.”

According to the report, data shows the negative impact on equality has been smaller in countries that have gender-intentional policies implemented prior to the pandemic. However, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation, cited by the Gates Foundation, “In Africa, women’s employment growth in 2021 is expected to more than offset the job losses resulting from COVID-19.”

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