Rowlands Kaotcha is Global Vice President and Africa Regional Director at The Hunger Project
One of the most challenging parts of managing this pandemic as part of a global organization has been watching as waves of cases crush country after country.
Now I am eying India with trepidation.
India—like Malawi and much of Africa—had much lower case counts than expected in the beginning, but is now suddenly in the midst of a tremendous battle. India had access to vaccines. I fear that the next hotspot will be in Africa where vaccines are short in supply.
The World Health Organization and others estimate that Africa will not have enough vaccine supply to reach the majority of its population until 2022 or 2023—and that’s if vaccine-producing countries continue to export their supplies.
We have seen how quickly countries will restrict export if they become hotspots. It’s nearly impossible to predict how this “lack of access” will impact Africa. Certainly there will be more deaths—preventable deaths.
That phrase, “lack of access,” is tossed around a lot. But “lack of access” belies what’s actually happening. It frees anyone from taking responsibility—because no one can own ‘lack of.’ The phrase gives the impression that there is an underlying natural cause to this disparity. But there is no natural cause. Wealthy countries are making a choice to deny access to those living in poverty. It is time we take a closer look at the words ‘lack of’ and start calling this injustice what it is: “denying access to those most at risk.”
Matshindo Mopeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said best, “It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe.”
I consider the deaths of at-risk Africans—seniors and those with underlying conditions—that occur while low-risk people in America and Europe have universal access to be bordering on a human rights violation.
While we lament the number of people dying from COVID-19, we remain blind to the killer ingrained in our society: the great, and deeply immoral, inequities of our world. These injustices have only been exacerbated during the pandemic.
In late 2020, The Hunger Project (THP) surveyed three communities in Malawi as part of our routine programming and it was clear that the pandemic had taken a real toll. In one of the communities, despite steady progress for several years, 69% of households surveyed reported living with severe or moderate hunger—an increase of nearly 30% since 2016.
Of particular concern, in another of these communities the number of students enrolled in school meal programs decreased by 35%. This means that many children are no longer receiving the supplemental nutrition that is often provided by these programs.
UNICEF recently released a report focused on South Asia stating that cuts in public health services across South Asia due to COVID-19 “may have contributed to an estimated 228,000 additional child deaths in 2020… Around 11,000 additional maternal deaths are also expected.”
What’s worse is that we in the development sector know, from decades of work and billions of dollars invested in global public health efforts, how to prevent these deaths and yet a denial of access—at first to the communities due to the lockdowns, and now to the vaccines that would allow us back—is perpetuating the disparity.
While hardships are certainly a constant in this pandemic, I have witnessed amazing acts of social solidarity. In Mexico, women participating with THP used profits from their textile cooperative to purchase essential goods in bulk so fewer community members would travel to the major cities and risk exposure.
In Bangladesh, THP-trained community volunteers have collected food rations and financial donations for nearly 400,000 families. Now, we need that same social solidarity globally.
We must turn our attention to ensuring the people most vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19—those who live with chronic hunger, in extreme poverty, those with limited access to healthcare—are prioritized for the vaccine, regardless of where they live. Unlocking their access to vaccines unlocks our ability to continue to work toward the Sustainable Development Goals. To get back on track. To build a new and better world.