As It Happens·Q&A

History will judge us if we vaccinate rich countries while poor ones suffer: African CDC head

Dr. John Nkengasong is calling on Canada, the U.S. and European countries to distribute their excess vaccines equitably to the countries that need it most — and soon.

'Africa is experiencing a very aggressive second wave' and cannot wait for vaccines, says Dr. John Nkengasong

John Nkengasong, Africa's Director of the Centres for Disease Control, says the continent is in the midst of an 'aggressive second wave' and needs COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible. (Tiksa Negeri/Reuters)

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The only way to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is on a global scale, says the director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. John Nkengasong is calling on Canada, the U.S. and European countries to distribute their excess vaccines equitably to the countries that need it most.

While many western powers are already rolling out their vaccination programs, most countries in Africa don't expect to be able to begin immunizing people until April. In the meantime, cases are surging across much of the content, and new variants of the novel coronavirus have been identified in South Africa and Nigeria

Cases in Africa have increased by nearly 19 per cent since last week, and deaths increased by 26 per cent, according to Africa CDC data. The continent has recorded 2.7 million coronavirus infections and more than 65,000 deaths as of Friday. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with other G20 leaders, has promised to share any excess doses of its vaccines with developing countries, but has not clarified a timeline. 

Nkengasong says Africa needs those vaccines as soon as possible. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Here in North America, vaccines have started arriving by the planeload. How different is it in Africa right now? 

Unfortunately, that is not the situation in Africa. We would really like to see, also, planeloads of vaccines arrive in the continent of Africa. We have been saying this for so long now. 

As a continent, we have developed a continental strategy, what we are calling the whole-of-Africa approach, to access vaccines in a timely fashion. 

Our point of need is now, so that we can effectively fight the second wave of the pandemic. 

The next generation may question the morality of vaccinating only parts of the world because they were wealthy, and not vaccinating certain parts of the world because they were poor.- Dr. John Nkengasong, Africa CDC director 

You have warned of a "moral catastrophe." What do you mean by that? 

What I mean by that is simply, clearly that we should not rest on our laurels and believe that … vaccinating people first in the northern hemisphere is normal. What may look very normal may actually come in future to haunt us very badly. 

The next generation may question the morality of vaccinating only parts of the world because they were wealthy, and not vaccinating certain parts of the world because they were poor.

And we don't need to get there at all. I think what we know is that richer countries have produced a lot of vaccines. They have excess vaccines. And we now know that at least a couple of vaccines are working. So I think what we should do to avoid that moral catastrophe is to redistribute those vaccines ... so that the continent [can] start vaccinating. 

It is for the collective interest of all of us living on the same planet that we vaccinate people in a timely manner to collectively avert this pandemic and defeat it once and for all. 

A health-care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient at a special ward at Arwyp Medical Centre in Gauteng, South Africa on Dec. 25. The country recorded 82,000 cases in the past week, according to the Africa CDC. (Shafiek Tassiem/Reuters)

Canada leads the countries that have pre-ordered millions more doses than we will actually need. What are your thoughts on that? What do you want the Canadian government and the Canadian people to think about? 

The Canadian people should really see this as a public good, vaccines as a public good. That COVID will not be defeated everywhere except if it is defeated all over. And that this is a moral issue.

We want history to judge us appropriately — that we were faced with a moral crisis and we acted in the responsible and the reasonable manner, and in a manner that speaks to the global family we live in, in the world. And that when we are confronted with a common challenge, we react to it in a way that we consider each other as members of the same family trying to address the same common issue. 

So that is what I would like the people of Canada to understand — that the silence of our friends will be remembered when the history of this pandemic will be written. 

Is it ethically right, in your mind, for Canada to buy up tens of millions of doses for a population around 37 million? 

I think when Canada and other countries were procuring these vaccines, there was really no guarantee which of the vaccines would work. I think that we have to start from a position where if I were the government of Canada at that time, what would I have done? I think the right thing to do was to gamble, go in for many vaccines and see which ones will work. 

But now that we know which ones will work — the Pfizer, the Moderna vaccines and the AstraZeneca vaccines — I think this is the time to step back and ask the question with respect to: Do we need all the vaccines that we acquired? And we do not. And how can we redistribute those vaccines quickly so that we avert the moral catastrophe that I just described? 

Otherwise, history will not judge us properly if we have all these vaccines and then Africa continues to be challenged with this pandemic. 

A funeral worker walks carrying a casket lowering device after a burial at the Westpark Cemetery amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Dec. 24. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Canada has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to procure COVID-19 treatments and vaccines for developing countries. The prime minister has said an excess of vaccines will be distributed to countries that need the most. What more can Canada and richer countries do? 

That pronouncement, that commitment, needs to be translated into action fairly quickly, because ... Africa is experiencing a very aggressive second wave. 

The Canadian government from that pronouncement would need to sit down with the African vaccine acquisition task force that has been set up by [South African] President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as the chair of the African Union, to discuss how those vaccines will be made available in a timely fashion. 

I think if by March or April, the continent has not started rapid and vast vaccination exercises, then we are really going to be facing a crisis at that time. 

In this country, many people are already critical of the slow pace of vaccinations, saying that, you know, the ones that have arrived aren't even being used in a timely fashion. So looking at March or April, that seems like a long way away for people in Africa. 

Absolutely. I think, again, put this in the context of what we are dealing with. We're dealing with a virus that spreads very quickly. We're dealing with a situation where the second wave is here. And we're dealing with a situation where the continent is experiencing a pandemic fatigue, where many people are moving around now. They're finding it difficult to obey lockdowns. They're finding it difficult to be social distancing. 

The vaccine that is now available becomes a very critical tool to be rolled out very aggressively. And the continent is ready for that. I think we, Africa's CDC, have issued recommendations and guidance on how to distribute those vaccines effectively and rapidly. And so we need partnerships. We need partnerships from the government of Canada. We need partnerships from our European friends and partners, and from the United States, so that we can begin that vaccination exercise earlier than later.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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