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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Why Kenya and Africa must invest in vaccine manufacture

The lifting of the eighteen-month curfew on Mashujaa day 2021 may have closed one chapter on the COVID-19 pandemic but is Kenya free from the greatest biosecurity threat it has ever faced?

President Kenyatta’s announcement that the nation is no longer in survival mode but moving to co-existence with SARS-CoV-2 virus lifted hopes last Wednesday. Declining infection rates and mounting public pressure probably triggered the suspension of the nationwide night curfew. Less clear is whether the ban on rallies is also lifted, anyone care to clarify?

For the families of the 5,233 fallen, the two million who have lost their jobs or hustles and our essential service workers, the season has been especially brutal. The President’s speech quoted the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics 2021 Economic Survey. Apart from his erroneous claim that our Gross Domestic product grew by 0.3 per cent last year (the Survey clearly says the economy contracted by the same), the impact of Health Ministry restrictions is clear. Our balance of payments dropped from a 2019 surplus of Sh 111.4 billion to a deficit of Sh 152.5 billion and the shilling depreciated against all the major currencies.

Bans on bars and nightclubs cost Kenya Revenue Authority Sh 6.3 billion in alcohol taxes. Yet not all sectors lost out. Unsurprisingly, internet, media houses and mobile money providers grew by 20 per cent. Mobile money providers even broke a five-year record as transactions turned over 5.2 trillion shillings.

Mandatory lockdowns fuelled gender-based violence, emergency service denial and mental health breakdowns. Mask compliance and curfew management unleashed levels of police violence not seen before in a non-election year. Access to justice dipped dramatically. Despite increased incidences of rape, defilement, and violence, the number of people who reported crime to the police fell by 25 per cent.

While curfew is over for now, at 2.4 per cent, Kenya is far from the 70 per cent World Health Organisation recommended vaccination threshold. Universal vaccination is the only measure that will keep Kenya floating above the crashing waves of new variants and triannual spikes. Swift vaccination requires challenging Western stockpiles even if Kenya is the favourite nephew for “hand me down, soon to expire” vaccines.

Africa and America vaccine inequality was more painful than the prick of my second jab in Texas last week. Contrast that America has administered 188 million vaccines, is introducing third booster shots, and now considering vaccinating pets with the fact that Africa, with a population nearly four times bigger than the USA, has only vaccinated 177 million people.

It was refreshing to hear Kenya is establishing a vaccine manufacturing plant next year. Domestic production not philanthropic donations is where long term biosecurity lies. The Kenyan Government must now stand publicly with India, South Africa and 100 other nations to demand at the upcoming WHO Consultation, G20 Summit, and before the World Trade Organisation, all intellectual property restrictions be waived to enable domestic manufacturing.

The Government must also demand that vaccine hoarding countries end their monopolies and invest in research and manufacturing capacity in Africa. Kenya and Africa rely on bilateral deals, left-over donations and the COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme at our peril.

It is time for vaccines to be declared global public goods and not points of profit. It’s time for a people’s vaccine and the clock ticks for us all.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 24 October 2021


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