This April, South Africa will mark its 27th annual freedom month, under the theme "Promoting Human Rights in the Age of covid-19", with Freedom Day celebrations on April 27th. Indeed, it's hard to speak about freedom anywhere against the backdrop of a more than year-long pandemic, which has taken the lives of more than 50,000 South Africans, and sickened 1.5 million more.
As vaccines begin to roll out across the world, South Africa, too, has begun to plan for post-pandemic normalcy, with an ambitious aim of inoculating
the majority of its citizens by the end of 2021. South Africa has also played an important role in vaccine development, where its participation in trials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine exposed the vaccine's weaknesses against the South African variant, demonstrating the importance of conducting vaccine trials worldwide, and beyond wealthier nations. South Africa has also helped COVAX secure 2 billion doses
for developing countries, and continues to champion the message that vaccines should be treated as a global public good.
Beyond its own domestic rollout, and as a member of the G20 and of the BRICS group of nations, South Africa has been at the forefront of the movement ensuring that equitable access to vaccines, especially for African nations and the global South, remains on the global agenda.
Indeed, in President Ramaphosa's remarks
at the launch of Global Citizen's 'Recover Better Together
' campaign, he emphasized the need to "pool resources, capabilities, knowledge and intellectual property" in order to fight the pandemic, and called on world leaders to "support the COVAX facility to ensure rapid and equitable access to covid-19 vaccines for all countries".
I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of South Africa's top diplomats, Ambassador Anil Sooklal, who formerly served as his nation's representative to the G20 and now acts as South Africa's Sherpa to the BRICS' nations. We spoke about vaccine access, what it will take to end this pandemic for everyone, President Macron's call for wealthy nations to donate 5% of their doses to developing nations, and how best to increase global vaccine production.
Overcoming the pandemic must be a global effort, and, as Ambassador Sooklal notes, will be essential to overcoming the triple-challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality, which the pandemic has brought to light. *Please note, this conversation has been lightly edited for brevity. Michael Sheldrick: South Africa has started its vaccination rollout beginning with Frontline Health Workers. What are the key priorities and focus areas for the country as it works towards returning to a state of normalcy?
Ambassador Anil Sooklal: The key priority for South Africa remains the health and wellbeing of all its citizens and ensuring that everyone is sufficiently immunised to end the pandemic. South Africa has embarked on an ambitious vaccine rollout program and hopes to have vaccinated the majority of its citizens by the end of 2021. It is obvious that South Africa, the African continent and indeed the global community will not be able to return to the so-called state of normalcy anytime soon.
In addition to safeguarding the health and wellbeing of its people, the government of South Africa has launched an intense economic recovery and reconstruction plan. Economic growth and stability will be central to the overall recovery of South Africa, Africa and the world. In addressing challenges [brought about by the pandemic], the opportunities provided by the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be utilised to accelerate development- which should ultimately benefit the poorest in society, whereby internet access and affordable data must be made widely available. MS: As we look towards getting global herd immunity, we have to ensure that COVAX is capacitated to ensure everyone, everywhere gets vaccinated. Will South Africa be looking at making any further financial commitments to the COVAX facility?
AS: South Africa remains committed to the success of the COVAX facility and will announce any further decisions at the appropriate time. South Africa would also like to see greater commitment from developed nations to ensure vaccines are treated as a global public good.
'Vaccine nationalism' and the hoarding of vaccines remains counterproductive to the global health architecture. It is indeed unfortunate that we find many developed countries adopting a 'me first' and not 'we first' policy.
Our global response to the pandemic must encapsulate the policy that no one is safe until everyone is safe.
The securing of 2 billion doses of candidate vaccines by COVAX could not have been achieved without considerable global cooperation. At least 1.3 billion doses are expected to be made available to 92 countries eligible for the COVAX scheme, targeting up to 20% of populations by the end of 2021.
COVAX facility is the best option to ensure that Africa has access. It is unfortunate that thus far the call by French President Macron, for the wealthy nations, to transfer between 3-5% of the covid-19 vaccine supplies to Africa has not gained traction. MS: Just 10 countries have administered 75% of all covid-19 vaccines and more than 100 countries have not yet received a single dose. South Africa has been pushing for a TRIPS waiver to curb this inequality. Is there any concern that even if TRIPS were waived, countries would still struggle to get critical information to be able to produce the vaccine?
AS: South Africa and India have been at the forefront in calling for a temporary waiver of the TRIPS with regards to the production of vaccines as a global public good. On 4 February 2021, many of the developed countries and industrialised nations including the US, Britain, the European Union, Brazil, Japan and others rejected further moratoriums on the intellectual property on vaccines.
They argued that these would only stifle innovation at pharmaceutical companies further stating that the incentive lies in R&D into drugs which need large investments into R&D. With a mutating virus, the developed nations felt that such decisions would not be helpful.
The majority of WTO members including developing, least-developed countries and NGOs, were clear that the WTO's IP rules were acting as a barrier to faster production of vaccines and other much needed medical equipment in poor countries. This attitude further reinforces the view that the wealthier countries and multinationals are more driven by profit and maintain control over vaccine supply chains rather than caring about the wellbeing of the global community.
South Africa, India and a large number of WTO members are of the view that the IP waiver will allow drug makers in poor countries to start production of effective vaccines sooner without having to wait on an already congested global supply chain, thereby ensuring that vaccines are available to the most vulnerable and poor states in the world.
South Africa, India and other developing countries are already producing vaccines, not just for domestic consumption but for the global market. From any perspective one would conclude that this is simply unfair and morally wrong.
(Note: in last week's post, I made the case for why the US and other wealthy nations should support a significant scaling up globally in vaccine production, licensing agreements and manufacturing capacity, including on the African continent). MS: What else needs to be done to achieve global access to the vaccine and end the pandemic once and for all? Do you think President Macron's proposal on donating vaccine doses as of now, especially to prioritize the vaccination of frontline health workers in Africa, is the right one?
AS: President Emmanuel Macron had proposed that rich countries transfer between three-to-five percent of their covid-19 vaccines to Africa. It is unfortunate that to date this call has not materialized practically and Africa continues to struggle to get adequate access to vaccines. India and China have already distributed millions of doses of the vaccine globally especially to countries of the South including Africa.
The mass production of vaccines by China, India and Russia as members of the BRICS countries for the global market has also demonstrated the rise of the BRICS as it positively impacts on global supply chains. South Africa, with J&J and South Africa's Aspen Pharmaceuticals have also partnered to produce the J&J vaccines. It is hoped that the call by President Macron will be heard and positively responded to by the developed nations. MS: Why are partnerships with organizations like Global Citizen, and civil society engagement so critical for the South African government?
AS: South Africa is a constitutional democracy, the state and government is required to create an environment in which all citizens can realize their maximum potential. Civil society formations are an integral element, and an important dynamic stakeholder in decision-making processes, who often articulate the concerns and interests of the people and often lead domestic and global discussions. South Africa encourages a healthy partnership with Civil Society as each compliment the other in addressing the needs and interests of people. Partnership with domestic and global organisations such as Global Citizen is essential in today's globalised and interconnected world. It is through such partnerships that we can build an inclusive and equitable global society where no one is left behind. MS: The G20 has the potential to drastically contribute to the development of Africa mainly through its Development Working Group. Things such as international tax reform, streamlining and reducing the costs of the transfer of remittances to developing countries, and helping developing countries mobilise revenues domestically. Is South Africa looking at charting the way to ensure that it gets more from the G20 in terms of the developmental agenda of the continent as the only African country on the G20?
AS: South Africa is privileged to be a permanent co-chair of the G20 Development Working Group (DWG). It sees the G20 as being an important platform in addressing the developmental challenges, especially of Africa and the global South. South Africa has ensured through its active participation within the G20 ensured that the development agenda is an integral part of the G20's focus.
The G20 is an important platform whereby the economic, health and developmental challenges that has been seriously and negatively impacted by the covid-19 pandemic is addressed within the G20. This must become an important deliverable of this year's summit. It will be necessary for the G20 to identify key interventions and concerted actions in positively addressing these challenges especially amongst the most vulnerable in the world.
The G20 has in place the Compact with Africa (CWA)
. It comprises twelve African participants: Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo and Tunisia.
All twenty G20 countries participate in the CWA with the African Development Bank Group (AfDB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank Group (WBG) coordinate the initiative and enjoy an observer status.
The CWA has a fully operational governance structure in place. This is managed through the G20 Africa Advisory Group (AAG), co-chaired by Germany and South Africa. The UN Economic Commission on Africa, the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) and the OECD also participate in the CWA. G20 Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) are encouraged to maximize their investment impact in CWA countries through closer cooperation in project implementation to reap synergies and enhance peer-learning.
The Think 20 (T20) African Standing Committee advocates in particular for Africa, and under that umbrella has a working group on CWA.
Ultimately, life cannot return to normal anywhere unless we all work together to demand a better, fairer world for all those that live in it. At the moment, vaccine equity is at the core of this mission – we are not safe until we have all been vaccinated, and it is this message that is at the heart of initiatives like COVAX – something more wealthy countries need to stand behind if we are to move beyond this pandemic.
In the end, freedom is possible, and life will return to normal, but to do so we will have to work together in ensuring that no one is left behind.