Chinese President Xi Jinping during his keynote speech, via video link, at the opening ceremony of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) on November 29, 2021 said that China would donate 1 billion vaccines to Africa (600 million directly and 400 million through other sources). Xi made this commitment at a time when global concerns with regard to the spread of the Omicron covid variant which originated in South Africa have risen. Many countries have suspended flights to Southern African nations — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Angola and/or Zambia – while others have imposed severe travel restrictions. Restrictions have also been imposed by certain countries on travellers from other countries where omicron variant cases have been detected.
The Chinese President also said that China will assist Africa through medical and health projects and also send its medical personnel.
The WHO which has designated the omicron variant as one of ‘concern’ has also been consistently flagging the low rate of vaccination in Africa. Figures clearly reiterate this point. Last month, the WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a media briefing pointed out, that out of the over 7 billion vaccines administered globally, 10 countries have received 70%. The WHO Chief said that while globally 40% of the population has received vaccines in Africa only 6% have been administered both doses of the vaccine.
The South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also underscored the point with regard to vaccine inequity. Said the South African President:
‘Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing economies to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay’
WHO had also been critical of developed countries for going ahead with booster doses, while the more vulnerable in poorer countries had not even received the initial doses. The WHO Chief flagged this point last month in his media briefing pointing out that :
‘Every day, six times more boosters are administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries. It makes no sense to give boosters to healthy adults, or to vaccinate children, when health workers, older people, and other high-risk groups around the world are still awaiting their first dose’
China- US rivalry and Africa
China had earlier sold 136 million vaccines to Africa and committed to donating 19 million vaccines (of these 107 million have been delivered and nearly 12 million are being delivered by the Covax initiative). US President, Joe Biden had also announced that the US would donate 17 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson (J &J) vaccine to the African Union in October 2021, and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his visit to the region discussed the need for ramping up local vaccination production sites in Africa.
In recent years, China’s economic linkages with Africa have consistently grown. The China Daily while highlighting this point in an editorial stated:
‘China has been Africa’s largest trade partner for 12 years in a row, and China-Africa trade hit a historical high of $185.2 billion in the first nine months of this year, up 38.2 percent year-on-year, while its investment in Africa was $2.59 billion, up 9.9 percent, surpassing that in 2019 before the pandemic’
China is also the largest bilateral lender to the African continent as a whole. There are a number of countries, such as Kenya, Djibouti and Nigeria which whose debts vis-à-vis China have become unsustainable. As a consequence, a number of African countries have been renegotiating their debts with China (many countries such as Ethiopia and Ghana have been calling for debt cancellations). During his address on November 29, Xi said that China was ready to waive debts, and would also work towards greater job creation in the African continent.
While African countries have begun to realize the pitfalls of being excessively dependent upon China, they do not have any alternative as such.
Apart from flagging the threats of China’s model of engagement with developing countries, the US and other countries have not been able to provide any tangible alternatives (US has sought to further increase its outreach vis-à-vis Africa in recent years, and it seeks to increase economic engagement under the umbrella of the Indo-Pacific) . The decision to impose travel bans on African countries by many developed nations has also not gone down well with Africa.
Important for the global community to work together
While a number of countries, not just the US and China, have been paying greater importance to Africa in recent years as a result of its strategic and economic importance, it is imperative for the global community to work collectively for addressing the issue of vaccine inequity and ensuring that a substantial percentage of Africa’s percentage is vaccinated. It is important that developed countries realize that there is a need to focus on long term measures and understand that short term steps and knee jerk reactions such as travel bans on countries will not suffice.