When it comes to fighting COVID-19, the Biden Administration has made it clear that tamping down the threat domestically is its first priority. While early moves to commit funds to COVAX and reengage the World Health Organization demonstrated a welcome understanding that solutions must ultimately be global, the United States has been outpaced by other major powers when it comes to vaccine diplomacy. Earlier this week, the suffering in India finally moved the United States to action, triggering new bilateral assistance and a more general commitment to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries.
But with regard to improving the outlook for Africa, the aid focused on India is a bank shot at best. It’s true that getting the virus under control in India would free up the South Asian giant’s formidable vaccine production capacity to assist the rest of the world, but helping India, while right and necessary, is insufficient to address the problem in Africa. Only about one percent of African adults have been vaccinated for COVID-19, and supply, distribution, staffing and public education campaigns are all in need of bolstering.
The public health case for vaccine equity is clear: unchecked transmission anywhere increases the chances of new variants emerging that can spread everywhere, including variants resistant to existing vaccines. Though many African countries took early and admirable steps to protect their populations, evidence suggests that COVID-19 is more prevalent in Africa than early reports suggested. Cities like Nairobi and Addis Ababa have lately experienced painful surges, stretching the limits of healthcare capacity and exhausting overstretched communities over a year into the pandemic.
The political case ought to be equally apparent. As the Biden team aims to bolster multilateralism and reassert American leadership in pursuit of solutions to thorny international challenges, the lack of palpable urgency regarding Africa’s COVID fight strikes a dissonant note. To build the coalitions we seek, the United States needs to paint a picture of a future in which the priorities of African partners are respected as we tackle critical challenges together. But the sincerity of this effort is called into question when our path out of the shared misery of COVID-19 diverges so sharply with that of Africa. For our own safety and our own long-term interests, the United States needs to bump support for African vaccination efforts up on the priority list.