In the past two weeks, Africa has once again come under attack from global public health policy. First, numerous countries barred travel from Southern Africa because of the Omicron variant — even though this was only discovered through South Africa’s outstanding epidemiological expertise and was already present elsewhere. And now Tony Blair has launched his own fusillade, demanding a new Africa policy to ensure the “ability to get Covid vaccines into people’s arms”.
Why does Blair think we need his leadership? Africa is made up of sovereign states. Nevertheless, the former PM is constantly popping up to “advise” countries that he feels are not following “correct Covid plans”, most recently as a “special Covid emissary” to Tanzania. It should be up to African countries to determine their own public health goals, and Covid-19 is far from the most serious public health concern in Africa today.
In his article Blair states that without full vaccination “[in] the poorly vaccinated parts of the world the virus will continue to mutate, eventually spreading beyond a country’s borders”. Which begs the question: do Western countries fear that Africans will die of Covid, or rather that they will infect them with Covid? It seems more about the latter.
The former Labour leader’s intervention doesn’t seem to have much to do with African public health. The predicament of several African countries including my own, Ghana, is not primarily about Covid. Studies suggest that existing Covid antibody levels (natural immunity) on the continent, which were 22% by May 2021, are probably by now at least 40%. Meanwhile, non-communicable diseases are increasing and causing a lot of deaths, which has been exacerbated since the Covid-19 crisis. According to one recent study, “in Ghana, the burden and mortality from CNCDs [chronic non-communicable diseases] have achieved epidemic proportions” and “has been estimated that CNCDs are responsible for about 43% of deaths in the country”. Such diseases continue to destroy countless lives on the continent with no special interventions from world leaders like Mr. Blair.
I welcome Covid vaccines, but these vaccines will not address Africa’s health infrastructure fragility, nor the increasing death and declining life-expectancy that have resulted from the Covid crisis. The West should be interested in an equitable partnership that will support Africa to name their own public health goals. The sort of medical neo-colonialism displayed by Blair will always weaken the continent’s prospects.
Former leaders from the West should not only be interested in vaccinating Africans, but also in supporting Africans to fix their economies and health systems. This should include related indigenous approaches that will serve specific countries in Africa, but not the big brush that hastily defaces the entire continent. Look at country-by-country Covid death rates in Africa and compare the rate of mortality caused by Covid compared to other diseases: you will soon see that the Covid vaccine agenda is only a drop in the ocean of African public health challenges.
Africa does not need Blair’s efforts on the vaccine front: it needs an autonomous public health system.