• Irungu Houghton

Until we have a Vaccine-nation, none of us are safe


As we approach the first anniversary of the Corona virus, the third wave is upon us. The virus is mutating, and infections are spiking again among both powerful and the marginalised. As the vaccine roll out accelerates internationally, how could leadership show up in our public and personal lives?


The statistics and conversations are grim. It feels like August 2020 again. Infection rates have shot up from 7.9% in January to 9.7% in March. Intensive care bed capacity is filling up and funeral announcements are being shared widely. Some of the Africa’s most powerful public officials including Vice-Presidents and Cabinet Ministers from South Africa, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Tanzania Ministers have become infected or lost their lives. These incidents are painful reminders that neglected health facilities cannot produce medical miracles even for Heads of States.


Most dramatically, it was reported this week that Tanzanian President and corona denialist John Magufuli was in critical condition in a Nairobi Hospital. Within days, Kenyan statesman Raila Oding’a declared that he had tested positive but was recuperating under first class medical supervision. While we wish these two Statesmen quick recovery, we must demand that the medical health standards available to them, be available to all.


The third wave and the new virulent strains must worry us regardless of our class, gender, and age. As the World Health Organisation posits, nobody is safe until everyone is safe. Our individual fate is dependent on the health wellbeing of all society. Thankfully, we finally have movement on the global distribution of COVID-17 vaccines.


By the end of January, 68 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines had been administered across 56 countries. Seven different vaccines have been rolled out and a further 200 additional vaccines are in development supported by COVAX. However, access remains worryingly uneven and unjust. Just 35 wealthy countries have pre-ordered enough vaccines to vaccinate their entire populations 3.3 times over. Africa, especially, must condemn vaccine hoarding by rich and powerful countries.


Kenyans must also watch vaccine hoarding or diversion to rich and powerful citizens and those not most at risk. The Government has declared its commitment to first cover health-care workers, teachers, security and immigration personnel. From July, the second phase will vaccinate 9.7 million people over the age of 50 years and adults with underlying medical conditions. The third phase will focus on 4.9 million economically vulnerable people living in congested areas.


Treasury has a fraction of the Kshs 36 billion needed to implement the phases. The financing shortfall threatens the country’s inoculation plan. Last week, the Health Ministry received only 1 million vaccine doses for 500,000 people. The very scarcity of the vaccine must lead us to demand that no approved COVID-19 vaccines are sold commercially online or in stores.


Secondly, we must remind each other that having the jab is not enough. We must continue to follow public health guidelines, mask up, sanitise and keep physically distanced. Corona spreading behaviour and especially, large political rallies, must stop. Lifting the curfew without universal vaccination is to gamble with lives.


Refreshingly, COVID-19 has distinguished leaders from the impulsive, self-centred, and the brash to those that we really need. For some of us, it was only a matter of time that the politicians who convened large political rallies would become infected. While they may receive specialised treatment, the thousands of people they rally will not. There are simply not enough ventilators to go around.


Nairobi County Assembly Member Anne Thumbi impressed me over 2020. She balanced her role as a county legislator and a registered nurse by volunteering to treat COVID-19 patients in health centres across Kawangware and elsewhere. By directly serving people, she knows first-hand what it means for nurses to not have personal protective equipment or have patients come to clinics sharing their relatives’ masks. She now argues passionately against commercialising the vaccine.


Private health is currently too exploitative to take a risk with this pandemic. Like South Africa and other countries, we must ban or discourage the sale of the vaccine to private hospitals and health facilities. Private facilities can be used to distribute the vaccines but must not charge for this. Health policymakers must also consider also whether to included public transport operators – the boda boda riders, bus, and taxi operators – in the first three phases. Until we have a Vaccine-nation, none of us are safe from this miserable virus.


This opinion was first published on 3 March 2021


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