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COVID is a global humanitarian emergency – act like it

‘I think sadly for us on the African continent, the COVID pandemic is only just beginning.’

Making COVID-19 face shields from recycled plastics at a workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 2020. REUTERS
Making COVID-19 face shields from recycled plastics at a workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 2020.

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The world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a global health crisis, but it’s time we shift gears and recognise it for the global humanitarian emergency that it is. 

The events in India have shown there is no room for complacency. When you have a fire, you call the firefighters, and in this interconnected global community, the humanitarian agencies are our firefighters.

The worldwide COVID pandemic is not nearly over – even as some countries reopen. I think sadly for us on the African continent, the pandemic is only just beginning.  

The extremely limited diagnostics capacity, even in capital cities, means much of the pandemic is still hidden. The virus will steadily make its way into rural areas and eventually even reach the swathes of ungoverned spaces across several African countries where – due to conflict and crises – health services cannot reach.

We now know for certain that there is no special African immunity to COVID.

When it is sufficiently seeded and incubated, we will begin to see the kind of exponential growth that is roiling India. 

We now know for certain that there is no special African immunity to COVID. The sense of ‘exceptionalism’ which Indian leaders thought made the country exempt from the worst of the virus has caused its current state of emergency – and should be a warning to us in Africa.  

All the indices are the same: A youthful population, warm climate, repeated exposure to endemic diseases – everything we in Africa claimed to be protective factors have proved to be false. 

Vaccines key to recovery

Moreover, most African countries do not have the benefit of India’s robust healthcare system, nor their diagnostic and therapeutic capacity. India is known as the pharmacy of the world and yet COVID brought it to its knees.

The economic and humanitarian repercussions of this virus are monumental. African economies in particular are fragile and will be less able to bounce back. There will be slower growth, less remittances, and increased debt and unemployment. 

The majority of workers are in the informal economy and live on a daily wage – few have the benefit of government safety nets. People have had to sell assets like land and livestock to survive the last year and have had to make impossible choices to survive. 

Gains in girls’ education are being rolled back with girls married off early to avoid school fees; female genital mutilation is on the increase; and we’re seeing a surge in gender-based violence.

Without vaccines, we cannot begin to think of a process of recovery, but access remains elusive.

The Africa Centre for Disease Control, under the leadership of Dr John Nkengasong, has done Africa proud and led a continental response to the pandemic. But we cannot do it alone: We need equal access to the tools to fight this pandemic and we need them now. 

Without vaccines, we cannot begin to think of a process of recovery, but access remains elusive. Africa has the lowest vaccination rates in the world, accounting for just one percent of the vaccine doses administered globally, according to the World Health Organization

Rich countries with vaccine surpluses must immediately share their excess doses and yield their place in the queue for more vaccines to enable an equitable rollout and prevent variants from threatening the fragile gains of the last few months.  

Global emergency

The humanitarian community must also adapt in the face of this virus. It cannot continue to focus only on short-term lifesaving responses – it needs to lean into the nexus between humanitarian relief and long-term development. 

It must also find new ways to improve access to the millions of displaced people, and those that live “off the grid” in those ungoverned spaces. They need to find ways to combat the virus in places where there are no cold chains, no formal health systems, and no legitimate governments. 

Why is the UN Security Council not discussing the deteriorating global situation caused by COVID-19? Why are they not treating the virus as a threat to global peace and security? Where is the UN Security Council’s call to action to highlight the plight of the millions plunged into poverty by the economic fall out of this virus? 

We are at a tipping point as a global community. Let the world declare this the system-wide humanitarian emergency that it is and get help to those most in need – URGENTLY.

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