The WHO announced that there are 170 Covid-19 vaccines under trial. Picture: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
The WHO announced that there are 170 Covid-19 vaccines under trial. Picture: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Coronavirus vaccine the new power tool in global politics

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 13, 2020

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David Monyae

Africa cannot afford to stand by while the coronavirus vaccines intensify into a geopolitical tug-of-war. The WHO announced that there are 170 Covid-19 vaccines under trial.

Africa is at the centre of the competitive race by big powers to dominate the much-needed coronavirus vaccine business.

Surprisingly, this race for the coronavirus vaccine has been politicised and is increasingly becoming driven by nationalistic and geopolitical calculus.

Vaccines are increasingly seen as geopolitical instruments with geo-economics benefits. For instance, Russia’s prospective coronavirus vaccine is named Sputnik V, a name that conjures up the Cold War. It was Sputnik I that became the first satellite to successfully orbit into space, triggering a space race with the US in 1957.

It appears that we are witnessing yet again another global race in critical health care heightened by the breakout of the coronavirus. At this particular juncture, the most guarded secret in the world is none other than the formula for the coronavirus vaccine.

The leading countries in the race for coronavirus vaccines are the US, China, Russia, European countries and Japan. The long-held people-centred solidarity in confronting global pandemics is being replaced by inward solutions such as Donald Trump’s “America First”.

Worryingly, Africa, with the largest number of poor countries in the world, does not have the capacity or resources to either produce its own vaccines or effectively manage the impact of Covid-19.

It has, however, tapped on its strategic partners across the world to alleviate the situation. One such strategic partner is China, a rising scientific leader in the field of medicine.

Beijing has irked Washington by entering into the medical field, an area once dominated by multinational companies from the Global North.

Its close relations with Africa, particularly in the health care and specifically on the prospective coronavirus candidate vaccines, have become another arena for conflict with the US. The US signalled its discomfort about what it perceives to be China’s encroachment in its sphere of influence.

Africa and China held a successful China-Africa Extraordinary Summit on Solidarity Against Covid-19 in June. President Xi Jinping specifically pledged that “once the development and deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit”.

During the virtual summit, AU chairperson President Cyril Ramaphosa asked China for “support for the provision of diagnostic and therapeutic supplies over a period of six months”.

China has furthermore committed to building Africa’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa - CDC). The recently released World Bank report projected sub-Saharan Africa economies to fall by 3.3% because of Covid-19. It estimates that 40 million Africans will be forced to live below the poverty line.

This has prompted President Ramaphosa as the AU chairperson to appeal to the world for one billion US dollars to alleviate the situation.

The smartest move by China - that could weaken the US’s position in its aggression towards China - was joining the WHO-led 156 countries that signed a global scheme to ensure fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

* Monyae is the director for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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