The effects of low vaccinations numbers in the region
As the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines began globally early in 2021, health authorities warned that in an interconnected world, leaving any region behind would be a global catastrophe. The World Health Organisation stated in June 2021 that to end the pandemic, every country in the world needed to vaccinate 70 percent of its population against COVID-19 by mid-2022.
One region, in particular, began to fall perilously behind. Less than 10 percent of Africans were fully vaccinated by the end of the year. Experts began to warn that the slow vaccine uptake in the region – caused by a combination of limited doses and doses received very close to their expiry date, strained health infrastructure, and vaccine skepticism – could have a brutal effect on the region’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
"The strength of South Africa's economic recovery will… depend on the rollout of vaccines," warned South African Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in November. "It is… of paramount importance that Namibia is seen as a safe destination [with regards to vaccination rates] so that we can attract tourists to Namibia again,” said the chairperson of the Tour and Safari Association of Namibia, Nathaly Ahrens, in January of this year.
But now, as the world approaches the WHO’s deadline for 70 percent vaccination in June 2022, the reality has proven more complicated. Although low vaccination rates have had a visible effect on some sectors on the continent, like healthcare, in many others, the impact is far less clear-cut. That is partially because natural immunity and the rising dominance of a less deadly variants of COVID-19 like Omicron seem to have blunted the effects of low vaccination in many countries. And it is also in part because other forces, like the war in Ukraine, have begun to overshadow COVID-19 as major determinants of countries’ economic recovery.
Low vaccination rates in the healthcare sector have and remain devastating. Only 15 percent of adults in Africa are fully vaccinated to date, and unvaccinated people are more likely to be hospitalised for COVID-19, putting additional strain on healthcare systems that are in many cases already under-resourced. "It doesn’t just lead to hospitals being overwhelmed,” says Safura Abdool Karim, a public health lawyer in South Africa. “It has a knock-on effect to situations where people are struggling to get access to treatment and healthcare services more broadly.” Low vaccination rates also make it easier for the virus to mutate, creating new variants that could potentially spread globally.
Meanwhile, low vaccination rates in the region have also hit vaccine makers in Africa who hoped to use demand for vaccines to generate orders. In May, a South African factory in Gqeberha said that it was on the verge of shutting down the production line it had set up to manufacture a version of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine because it had not received a single order for its product. When the factory, run by South African company Aspen Pharmacare, announced in November of last year that it had struck a deal to become the first manufacturer of a COVID-19 vaccine in Africa, it was hailed as an important local solution to the region’s need for more vaccine doses. South African president Cyril Ramaphosa blamed “international agencies” for not placing orders with the Aspen factory, but Gavi, the non-profit that manages orders for the international vaccine distribution programme COVAX, pointed to unpredictable demand for COVID-19 vaccines in much of Africa.
However, if the healthcare sector continues to be roiled by low vaccination rates, in other sectors that were hard hit by the pandemic -- like the food and service industries, retail, and tourism -- the effects of low vaccination rates have been less straightforward. In tourism, for instance, vaccination rates in African countries receiving tourists have proven a relatively insignificant factor in whether travelers decide to visit those places. An analysis by Oxford Economics showed that other factors, including vaccination rates in the source countries of tourists, the levels of lockdown restrictions in the countries being visited, and logistics all play an equal or larger role.
"Vaccination in Africa must remain an important global priority if the pandemic is to be brought under control. The economic impact is just one reason, there is also a moral imperative.”
“Low vaccination rates in South Africa do not seem to be a concern for (international) travelers – it’s actual COVID-19 cases and lockdown regulations that are a far greater discouragement for travel,” says Annika Surmeier, a sustainable tourism expert at the University of Cape Town and the University of Manchester.
In sectors like travel, Abdool Karim notes, the effects of low vaccination rates are likely to be knock-on ones – for instance, if a new variant emerges in a place with low vaccine uptake and it spreads globally, causing the closures of borders, as was seen with the Omicron variant that originated in southern Africa late last year. A fifth wave appears to be gathering strength in the region, particularly South Africa, where a sharp rise in cases heading into the southern hemisphere winter has been driven by a new, highly-transmissible sub-variant of Omicron.
For experts, the rise in cases in the region points to the interconnectedness of different regions as the pandemic winds through its third year. Overall, Abdool Karim notes, that vaccination in Africa must remain an important global priority if the pandemic is to be brought under control.
“The economic impact is just one reason,” she says. “At its core, there’s a moral imperative.”
The article is written by freelance journalist Ryan Brown on behalf of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in sub-Saharan Africa.