These poor nations are lagging behind in the fight against COVID-19

A nurse prepares to inoculate a staff member with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Hector Amezcua / Swimming pool / AP

By Nita Bhalla and Anastasia Moloney

NAIROBI / BOGOTA, July 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In a private hospital in the Burundian capital, emergency physician Emmanuel Kubwayo is worried for the first time since the coronavirus began to spread around the world last year.

Kubwayo initially shared the government’s view that the small Central African country does not need COVID-19 vaccines because it has so few cases. But as deaths and infections increase across Africa, he has changed his mind.

Along with Eritrea, Tanzania and North Korea, Burundi is one of a handful of countries that have not started vaccinations, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), potentially threatening global efforts to end the pandemic.

“It’s time to let the people who want and can get vaccinated,” said Kubwayo, 53, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

“Burundi is not an isolated island and if we don’t, the virus will circulate freely in the country and the region.”

So far, only around 18 million people in Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion, have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 mainly due to vaccine shortages, as well as widespread reluctance.

But infections and deaths have jumped in recent weeks as more contagious variants take hold, shining the spotlight on the world’s so-called vaccine deserts – places that are unable or unwilling to undertake mass inoculation.

Burundian Interior Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca told reporters last week that the government was not against vaccines, stressing that the country has allowed them to take in foreigners working for the United Nations and other agencies.

Ndirakobuca, who is also chairman of the National Commission to Combat COVID-19, was not available to comment on this story.

“Failure to share”

As rich countries open up and start vaccinating less vulnerable young people, poor countries struggle to get vaccines. In Africa and elsewhere, such as Haiti, health authorities have barely begun mass deployments.

Globally, wealthy countries have administered about half of the total COVID-19 vaccine doses, compared to just 0.4% in low-income countries, according to WHO figures last month, revealing a glaring inequality in vaccines.

The gap could widen further as some governments order millions of booster doses to deal with a spike in cases linked to the highly contagious Delta variant, before others receive supplies for health workers and other high risk groups.

“Global failure to equitably share vaccines is fueling the pandemic,” WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.

“Vaccines are effective against serious diseases caused by variants, but variants will continue to thrive if the inequitable deployment of vaccines around the world is not addressed,” he said.

In Haiti, where the first batch of 500,000 doses finally arrived last week thanks to the international COVAX program, Dr Wilnick Richard said getting the vaccine would be a relief for health workers battling the country’s first serious outbreak.

“I’m worried about being infected and for my wife because she’s pregnant,” said Richard, 36, chief medical officer of Care 2 Communities, a social enterprise that runs rural health clinics in the country. Caribbean.

“If I could get the vaccine, that would be wonderful,” he added.

‘Too scared’

While lack of vaccines has been the biggest obstacle to mass immunizations in Africa, Burundi, Tanzania and Eritrea have been outliers – rejecting WHO advice to join COVAX on the grounds that they have cases under control. Tanzania has since changed course.

Eritrea has recorded around 30 coronavirus deaths, while Burundi has reported eight, according to the WHO.

In the United States, an Eritrean-founded think tank launched a campaign called #AllowCOVAXforEritrea to pressure the government to change course and seek vaccines.

“When you talk to your family and friends at home, people worry about the virus but they are too afraid to say anything about the vaccine demand,” said cardiologist Habteab Feseha, a member of the ‘Eritrean Research Institute for Policy & Strategy (ERIPS).

“If no vaccine is safe, many innocent people will needlessly die,” he said by phone from Arizona.

Government officials did not respond to a request for comment.

North Korea received COVAX approval for around 2 million doses, but then rejected planned shipments of AstraZeneca’s vaccine over concerns about side effects, a South Korean think tank said earlier. this month.

Victor Cha, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a US-based think tank, said the anti-virus restrictions were taking a heavy toll on the reclusive nation.

“The country appears to have been able to avoid such an epidemic by completely closing its borders to all contact with the outside world, even more than is typical for the isolated regime,” said Cha, president of CSIS Korea.

“But it has come at a great cost – the economy is skyrocketing, commodity prices are rising and food shortages are expected,” he added.

Economic concerns could potentially influence public opinion in Tanzania, lagging behind vaccines in East Africa, which only recently recognized the risk of COVID-19 after the death of former President John Magufuli – a coronavirus skeptic – in March.

His successor, Samia Suluhu Hassan, applied to join COVAX and pledged $ 470 million to buy vaccines and boost the economy.

The tropical island of Zanzibar has seen the number of tourists decline as local residents struggle to make a living.

And while mistrust of vaccines is rampant and the wearing of masks is rare, some islanders have said vaccination may be the only way to revive the crucial tourism economy.

“If the whole world is vaccinated, then we should do it too,” said Mohammed Okala, environmentalist and tourist guide. “Without the vaccine, we will have fewer tourists visiting and we will suffer.”

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney and Nita Bhalla with additional reporting from Kim Harrisberg in Johannesburg and a correspondent in Bujumbura; edited by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the life of people around the world who are struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit

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