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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

A peoples' vaccine is what the world needs now

From the time of Jesus Christ, life-expectancy has always been an algorithm not an absolute. The threat of a pandemic for the elderly, the unhealthy and poor would have been the same in Anno Domini 20 as they are in AD 2020. Understanding this, we must understand and engage the raging debate how to globally roll out an anti-COVID-19 vaccine.

With the banning of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and New Years’ Eve, these seasonal holidays are very extraordinary. Pope Francis seems to have heeded Police Inspector General Mutyambai’s reminder to Kenyans a couple of days ago. Even the Vatican’s Christmas Midnight Mass came forward two hours to meet curfew rules. Mass in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, will be held online to avoid worshippers congregating in public. That there have not been riots and protests tell us much about the spirit of community care and solidarity against a common threat.

Life-expectancy during the time of Jesus was between 30-40 years. Like today though, there were people that lived over seventy years or more. Denied adequate nutrition, quality water, sanitation, reproductive and general health care, many did not live that long. As rich countries introduce anti- COVID-19 vaccines to their citizens, it is important to recognise age is not just a number. It is often a statement of privilege, power and class.

There are no less than seventy vaccines being developed today. Kenya has been testing the AstraZenech version for a few months now. When fully available, the vaccines will likely cost between US$ 335 to 4,127 per dose with AstraZeneca being the cheapest. Thirteen have moved to the third stage of trials with seven being approved for limited use in some countries. Today, Israel rolls out its vaccination programme on the heels of United Kingdom and United States of America among others.

The Peoples’ Vaccine Alliance blew the whistle at the beginning of December. Rich Governments have already acquired enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over. Put another way, 14 per cent of the world’s population now controls 53 per cent of the most promising vaccines so far. Unless a more equitable formula is found, nearly 70 countries across Africa and Global South will not vaccinate more than ten per cent of their populations.

Kenya must proactively support the initiative for a universal peoples’ public health vaccine. Led by GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, international health players need US$ 7 billion to secure two billion doses. With US$ 5 million more, they could treat at least 20 per cent of everyone in the world.

Privatisation, pandemic profiteering and creating secondary private markets must be stopped. Two decades ago, delays in anti-retroviral programmes in South Africa probably caused the deaths of 330,000 people. More recently, the denial of vaccines for pneumonia, diarrhoea and measles to 20 million children has contributed to 1.4 million deaths globally. Vaccine denial kills.

Besides access, Kenyan scientists must investigate the safety and ethical concerns of these potentially life-saving vaccines. Even if we set aside the superstitious claims of the South African Chief Justice and Florida Pastors that the vaccines will alter our genes in the image of the anti-Christ, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board must independently assess the long-term impact. The mass media must not be muzzled from investigative journalism and the publics’ right to know. Manufacturers demands to be indemnified from any victims’ claims must be challenged under Chapter 43 and our Patients’ Rights Charter.

Compulsory mass vaccination and the denial of services such as travel, employment and entering restaurants for those that abstain are human rights questions. We need to have these conversations responsibly. Like Yellow Fever, do our individual choices to vaccinate or not override public safety? Could we demand that only jabs administered by Kenyan public health authorities matter for Kenyans, other residents and refugees? This will reduce the space for transnational medical tourism and privatised approaches that drive up costs and reduce access.

The safest way out of this pandemic is through accelerating and widening public health access programming. Let us hold the Health Cabinet Secretary accountable for his commendable promise that our taxes will be used to make the vaccine available to all in 2021. Kudos also to State House, Health Ministry, Council of Governors and KMPDU for reaching a Return to Work agreement this week. Let’s hope the spirit of dialogue will also be extended to our nurses and clerical workers very soon.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 26 December 2020


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