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Vaccine Nationalism has left Africa scrambling to protect its people

By Anjola Olatunji
Covid-19 and the cost of vaccine nationalism, Rand Europe 2022, By Adobe Stock

What is vaccine nationalism?

As Vanderslott et al. aptly put it, vaccine nationalism (VN) is the pursuit of vaccines in the national interest through methods such as supply agreements or export bans, even if it is at the expense of other countries. It is worth noting that VN has generally made it more difficult to achieve international vaccine ownership by attaching a national character to vaccines. What is already known, however, is that VN has allowed higher-income countries to acquire Covid-19 supplies and vaccines at the expense of lower-income nations.[1]

During the creation, testing, and dissemination of Covid-19 vaccinations, VN has been a hot topic. Throughout the pandemic, media emphasis has focused on how worldwide, coordinated access to vaccines has been hampered. It has also shown how some governments have acquired vaccination supplies through bilateral purchase agreements and the biased pricing, negotiating, and delivery methods used by pharmaceutical companies. The 'winners' and 'losers' in the vaccine supply race have received worldwide public attention.[2]

How is Africa affected by vaccine nationalism?

Africa has historically already been impacted by VN. In 1996, a cocktail of potent antiviral medications transformed HIV treatment in the West, saving countless lives, but it took another seven years for the treatments to reach Africa, the continent worst impacted. “That was disastrous”, Nkengasong continues, “and that experience is still fresh in my memory”.[3] During the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the US and many European countries gave 10% of their vaccine inventories to poorer countries, but only after it was evident that they had enough vaccines for their own populations. "Too many people were forced to wait too long for too little," says Richard Hatchett, CEO of COVAX partner Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.[4]

To make matters worse, Africa is trailing behind in its vaccine deployment strategy, with only 1% of the continent's population immunised as of April 2021: its biggest issue is access to the crucial vaccine market. While wealthy countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States celebrate fully vaccinating more than 30% and 20% of their populations respectively, leaders across Africa are speaking out to guarantee their continent gets its fair share.[5]

Where does vaccine nationalism leave Africa, and why should global citizens care about this?

VN has, according to Vera Songwe, slowed Africa's progress by up to five years. Vaccine inequities will stifle Africa's development by providing a barrier for individuals wishing to visit or do business with the continent. Because of this, it will stifle the creation of millions of jobs and continue to claim the lives of tens of thousands of people.[6]

African leaders have utilised their platforms and voices to urge the rest of the world to promote vaccination fairness and global solidarity. These leaders have advocated for universal vaccine availability for everyone, and everywhere.[7]

First and foremost, South Africa's president has been outspoken about vaccine inequality and has advocated for manufacturing facilities so that Africa may produce its own vaccines. Ramaphosa used his platform to chastise wealthy nations for hoarding vaccines at the start of 2021. At the time, no vaccines had been delivered to South Africa.[8]

Secondly, both the first woman and the first African leader to become Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala immediately addressed vaccine inequity on her first day on the job in March 2021. She roughly laid out a proposal for how the WTO could handle the pandemic and its impacts on the developing world in her first speech as director-general. “I propose that we ‘walk and chew gum’ by also focusing on the immediate needs of dozens of poor countries that have yet to vaccinate a single person. ‘People are dying in poor countries,’”.[9]

Nkengasong argues that Africa needs to look into other options to counter VN. “We applaud the COVAX Facility arrangement,” Nkengasong continues, “but we can't just wait for Geneva debates”. “We have to take control of our own fate.” Similarly, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called on African leaders to secure vaccine supply for the continent and ensure that vaccines are made on the continent during an African Union conference in late June. According to Nkengasong, African governments are contacting banks to finance pharmaceutical deals comparable to ones done by the US.[10]


Ultimately, global citizens should care about VN because vulnerable countries without access to Covid-19 vaccines may struggle to battle the pandemic if vaccines are not delivered fairly and equally. The UN's Global Goal 3 asks for improved health and well-being, which will be impossible to accomplish if wealthy countries continue to hoard vaccinations.[11]


[1] Samantha Vanderslott et al, ‘Vaccine nationalism and internationalism: perspectives of Covid-19 vaccine trial participants in the United Kingdom’ (2021) BMJ Global Health 1

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kai Kupferschmidt, ‘Vaccine nationalism’ threatens global plan to distribute COVID-19 shots fairly’ (Science Association Website 2020) <> Accessed 31st March 2022

[5] Josh Holder, ‘Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World’ The New York Times (March 29, 2022) <> (Accessed 31st March 2022)

[6] Prinesha Naidoo and Jessica Shankleman, ‘Covid-19 Vaccine troubles may set Africa back five years and unleash new strains on the world: UN body’, News24 (April 21, 2022) <> (Accessed 31st March 2022)

[7] Khanyi Mlaba, ‘7 Leaders from Africa who are leading the charge against Covid-19 vaccine hoarding’, (Global Citizen Organization) <> Accessed 31st March 2022

[8] Khanyi Mlaba, ‘South Africa’s Ramaphosa Calls for African-Made Vaccines as Health Care Workers Run out of Jobs’ <> Accessed 31st March 2022

[9] Aljazeera News, ‘Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala promotes vaccine equity on day one at WTO’ (March 1, 2021) <> Accessed 31st March 2022

[10] Claire Keeton, ‘Africa edging towards third wave as 10 million get Covid-19 vaccines’ Times Live (April 2, 2022) <> (Accessed 31st March 2022)

[11] Ibid., n.7

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