On Monday, Gordon Brown attacked G7 leaders for failing to ensure a Covid-19 vaccine rollout in Africa. Pointing out that Covid vaccines manufactured in South Africa have been exported to the EU, and that the COVAX facility has thus far delivered only 60 million of the promised 700 million doses, he accused EU leaders of a “neocolonial approach”.
As the only Western political leader in history who has led a moderately constructive policy about debt in African countries, Brown’s heart is probably in the right place. Yet his anger exemplifies the tunnel vision of world leaders on Covid: unable to see broader issues because the narrative and policy discussion are framed around a small set of pre-defined concerns.
With vaccines, the lack of equitable access is the tip of the neocolonial iceberg. Brown’s concern does not encompass the fact that African access to Covid vaccines depends on World Bank loans. The World Bank website reveals the extent of loans which African nations have undertaken to buy vaccines: from large countries such as Ghana ($200 million), Ethiopia ($207 million) and Kenya ($130 million), to tiny countries such as Eswatini ($5 million), Gambia ($8 million), and São Tomé ($6.5 million), the Covid vaccine procurement system is mired in the neocolonial approach of indebting African countries.
And how will this debt be restructured? The World Bank’s partners-in-crime over at the IMF offer a good indicator. An Oxfam briefing paper issued two weeks ago revealed that “as of 15 March 2021, 85% of the 107 Covid-19 loans negotiated between the IMF and 85 governments indicate plans to undertake austerity once the health crisis abates”, and that the IMF was “systematically encouraging countries to adopt austerity measures once the pandemic subsides, risking a severe spike in already increased inequality levels”.
Many of the vaccines will be paid for by loans which will lead to austerity and worse future investment in public health in poor countries. All this for a disease which has proven itself to be milder in Africa than elsewhere, and where large numbers of Africans don’t want to get vaccinated against Covid because of the low risk there. Forcing people into debt and future poverty for a medical procedure they don’t want: sounds like a pretty neo-colonial approach to me.
If Gordon Brown really wants to address neo-colonial approaches to Covid-19, there are better ways to direct his energies. He could question the government’s red list quarantine, destroying economic livelihoods in African countries such as Cabo Verde, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania which all rely on tourism. Or he could question the rush for universal vaccination in the West, based on a redefinition of herd immunity as only available through vaccination. After all, if we were not bullying young people in rich countries who are at very little risk from Covid into jabs, there would be plenty of vaccines for everyone who wants and needs them — and no need to worry about vaccine passports either.
Toby Green is the author of The Covid Consensus: The New Politics of Global Inequality (Hurst).