Many parts of the developing world continue to struggle to contain Covid-19, even as the West begins to open back up. I live in South Africa, and my family came down with Covid two weeks ago. Of course, it wasn’t such a great surprise, since almost everyone we know here has had one or more family members infected. But it became clear to me, as we continue to self-isolate at home, that in the face of the delta variant of the coronavirus, the West must realize that it is only if it abandons its vaccine selfishness can it truly provide security to its own population. We in the Global South must be vaccinated too if those in the Global North want to get back their normal life.
Here’s what happened to my family. With the onset of winter in the southern hemisphere, children of all ages are getting wintertime sniffles. When our two-and-a-half-year-old son came down with a fever and cough three weeks ago, we thought it was a run-of-the-mill toddler cold. Then, the cold spread to my wife and our son’s caregiver. The penny dropped when my wife lost her sense of taste and smell, and a subsequent test confirmed that she had contracted Covid.
From our experience, the most frightening thing about the delta variant is that it shows up in children like a typical winter cold. Our son was the likely vector of our family’s infection. There is no way to be sure, but we haven’t been out much since South Africa reentered lockdown to combat the current wave of infection. Our son, however, has been going to his playgroup with other kids.
Our doctor tells us that any case of cold he sees in children this winter is being treated as Covid. Thus, not only is the delta variant almost 60 percent more transmissible than the original strain of Covid, but it seems to be affecting children. (Thankfully, our family is doing fine as the virus is manifesting in everyone at home like a mild flu.)
Current infections across South Africa as a result of the delta variant have outpaced the previous two infection peaks in 2020. Experts from the World Health Organization have warned that infections also have increased for the past six weeks across the rest of Africa. Because of ample testing capacity, South Africa accounts for more than half of those identified cases.
Aside from the high transmissibility of the delta variant, the reason South Africa finds itself battling another infection wave is a result of the glacial pace of vaccination. Out of a population of 60 million, only 3 million doses of vaccine have been administered. According to the WHO, in the rest of the continent only 15 million people are fully vaccinated.
It is conceivable that with a vast number of people still highly susceptible to Covid, new variants will emerge to join the alpha, beta, delta and other existing variants. That’s why we need everyone everywhere on Earth to be quickly vaccinated. There is no way to know how effective our existing vaccines will be against new forms of the virus, so we must end the spread of existing forms before they mutate further. All this, and the fact that children are no longer immune – yet no toddler anywhere is eligible for vaccination – drives home the dangerous nature of the problem we all face.
The primary handicap to vaccination across a wider geography has been the failure of the Covax vaccine-sharing program, as a result of Western countries’ rewriting of rules to their benefit. Through this, they gazumped more than their fair share of vaccines. Developed nations also negotiated directly with potential vaccine makers before their products were approved. The result is that the supply pipeline currently is mostly pointed West.
The only way out of this mess is to have more vaccine production lines. We need more vaccine factories because the current ones have already committed their supplies for many months ahead. For Africa, a continent with just 1.2 percent of its population inoculated, there must be African vaccine plants. To that end, it is reassuring that South Africa sealed a historic agreement late last month with Johnson & Johnson to manufacture its one-jab vaccine. But the continent needs much more of this if infections are going to be controlled soon before new variants have an opportunity to mutate into life.
And Covid-19 is not going to be the last virus to wreak havoc. Africa needs the ability to develop vaccines for the future. The initiative by the WHO and France to transfer technology related to messenger RNA vaccines to South Africa is a step in the right direction.
But of course, all of that takes time, when there is an easier, immediate way of getting Africa and the rest of the Global South vaccinated. And that is for the Global North to give us the vaccines it isn’t using.
The only swift path out of rising infections and lockdowns is deliberate international action that includes a global campaign in which wealthier countries assist developing nations with vaccine access. If the Global North wants to be able to continue to visit bars and sports events, to go to cinemas and to visit family, it needs to ensure that we in the Global South are just as protected as they are. Otherwise, there will almost surely be new variants to come that will escape the neutralizing effect of our current crop of vaccines.
As for my wife and I, we learned last month that we might get our first vaccine shot in August. But that’s all rather academic now.
Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.