Biden should use America’s massive vaccine stockpile to help Africa and rebuild the world’s confidence in the US

COVID-19, South Africa
Health worker Vuyiseka Mathambo takes a nasal swab from a patient to test for COVID-19 at a Masiphumelele community centre in Cape Town, South Africa on July 23, 2020.

  • The Biden Administration has committed to buy hundreds of millions of COVID vaccine doses.
  • A plan to distribute some of those doses to Africa can show that the US is ready to reassert its influence on the world stage.
  • The US cannot afford to allow countries like China to grow their influence in Africa through “vaccine diplomacy.”
  • Ivor Ichikowitz is a South African-born industrialist, social entrepreneur, and philanthropist.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A new president brings opportunity for a new strategy towards Africa, a continent that has too often been ignored by American presidents. President Joe Biden’s decision to back Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for head of the World Trade Organization is a step in the right direction.

Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American, will be the first African to hold the position. She has previously served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and had a 25-year career at the World Bank.

It’s a positive beginning, but really it was more the Biden administration running cleanup of his predecessor’s mess. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy had been supported by the European Union, Australia, Japan, China, and African nations before the Trump administration blocked her.

There remains much to be done on encouraging trade and investment in Africa, combating transnational threats, taking on humanitarian crises, and preventing Africa from falling under the influence of China. Unfortunately, the Trump administration did very little on these fronts, making the problems worse and costing the US credibility.

Africa could have a bright future

Africa is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, with unbridled entrepreneurial youth. Much of the continent’s populace view American ideals favorably, but many are worried about a prolonged period of American disinterest.

They do not want to fall under the influence of neo-colonialism – neither that of the US, nor China’s, nor that of any other power. But lack of engagement and opportunity coming from the United States could force Africa to fall under China’s debt diplomacy.

Now, China is also making a push to very publicly provide Africa with vaccines and support on the novel coronavirus. China’s help is much appreciated. But, like its investments, vaccines will also create incentives for the recipients to be even more closely tied to China.

To counter this “vaccine diplomacy” from China, the US should provide Africa with COVID tests and supplies. African leaders and the public are frustrated by the lack of access to vaccines, which are being stockpiled by wealthy Western countries like the US. The continent requires more than 1.5 billion doses to meet its targets, but only about a million have been shipped to South Africa, with a few million more expected to arrive to select countries in coming months.

“We don’t always want to be the last people on the planet,” Kenya’s Minister of Health Mutahi Kagwe told the German news organization DW.

Chinese vaccines, like SinoPharm, are easier to administer in developing countries – many of which lack the high-tech freezers needed to keep vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna at an extremely low temperature.

SinoPharm chairman Liu Jingzhen has promised that the Chinese vaccine will “take the lead in benefiting African countries,” and African diplomats like Rwandan Ambassador to China, James Kimonyo, have expressed their optimism about it. Already, Seychelles has begun vaccinating its citizens using the Chinese vaccine and Chinese state media is using this news to its own benefit, while accusing the West of turning a blind eye to Africa.

The obvious solution to counter this Chinese influence would be to provide African countries with American vaccines.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have shown efficaices that prevent illness from COVID at a 95% rate. China announced the effectiveness of its SinoPharm vaccine as 79%, but reports from Brazil and Indonesia put the effectiveness at 50.4% and 65.3%, respectively. Either way, the American vaccines are significantly more effective and have also been more thoroughly vetted for safety.

Other countries are already seeing the wisdom is sharing their vaccines. French President Emmanuel Macron has said wealthy nations should share up to 5% of their vaccines with the developing world. The Biden administration has expressed a commitment to the “equitable distribution of vaccines and funding globally” but, crucially, has said it will not be sharing any of the vaccines it has purchased with other countries until all Americans are vaccinated. Given how the initial vaccine distribution is extremely skewed towards wealthy countries, that leaves low and middle income countries at the end of a long line.

The administration has joined COVAX, the global initiative to distribute vaccines associated with the World Health Organization (WHO). The decision to join the program that over 160 countries had already signed onto is the right choice, but it is closer to the default that would have been expected of the world’s superpower, rather than a step above and beyond.

The US can provide more support in other ways

Given the “vaccine nationalism” in the United States, it is unlikely the US would be willing to provide a large number of vaccines to Africa. However, many African countries still lack access to sufficient amounts of COVID-19 test kits, let alone vaccines.

As of the first week of February, the Congo was testing fewer than 10 people per million every day, and Uganda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, among other countries, are also lagging most of the world in testing.

After a slow start, the US now has access to enough testing, and the Biden administration has also discussed utilizing the Defense Production Act to increase production of tests. Some of those should be exported to address international needs.

With the Southern Hemisphere’s winter season approaching, countries on the African continent must get ready before outbreaks start to get worse. Last year, the first major spikes in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and other countries began around June and hit their peaks in July. But the WHO has warned that 2021 could be even worse than 2020, in part due to the breakout of new virus strains – such as the 501.V2 variant, which was first detected in South Africa.

This variant has also spread to a number of South Africa’s neighboring countries, including Mozambique, where at least 41 cases have been counted. Mozambique’s test positivity rate since January has been over 20%, indicating the need for more tests to catch undetected community spread.

The “COVID diplomacy” strategy is a real one. The needs of various African countries for help are very real, too. These things cannot be ignored.

Already the US is on the defensive in terms of diplomatic engagement and investment in Africa. They cannot cede this latest battlefield to China, either. Moreover, we cannot let this opportunity to save lives go to waste.

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The views expressed are his own.

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