Fight Covid like we fought dictators

Thursday November 19 2020
Charles Onyango

Charles Onyango is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans [email protected]

In the last few days, there has been an outbreak of good news in the battle against Covid-19, and hopeful signs that those of us who will survive might soon get out of pandemic prison.

The good news came from away lands. First, US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that a vaccine against Covid-19 that it and German biotechnology company BioNTech have been working on, had shown about 90 per cent protection against the virus in preliminary results from its Phase 3 trials (when the safety and effectiveness of a new treatment is tested against the current standard treatment. It involves several thousand patients, in many places across a country or around the world).

Then, before we could catch our breaths, another American firm Moderna announced an even more impressive breakthrough, saying its Covid-19 vaccine had shown nearly 95 per cent protection.

Quickly, though, any hope that we would get a bit of them early next year if these vaccines got final approval, was dashed when we were reminded that the rich industrialised nations had forward-bought 80 per cent of the vaccines, so we would have to wait in the rain for a while.

Additionally, in the case of Pfizer, even if its vaccine became available, it requires to be stored at below minus 70º Celsius – and no African country has the capacity to do that, yet.

African countries have done quite well in this “war” against Covid-19. We didn’t drop dead in millions like flies, as some doomsday scenarios had projected. When the Covid-19 outbreak got underway in January 2020, no African country had labs that could test for the virus. By the second week of February, only three could. However, by the end of that February, 42 of them had developed the capacity to test. Today, all them can, and in some African all major towns now have test labs.


Smart start-ups, university innovation labs, and research institutes rose to the occasion, developing some of the world’s quickest Covid-19 (in Senegal), and efficient and inexpensive ventilators. Some governments that cut their teeth battling pandemics like Ebola, brought the same weapons to bear against coronavirus.

The gods have also tipped the survival scales in our favour. The virus found us with the world’s most youthful population (they tend to be ravaged less by Covid). Then, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, the fact that the majority of our people live in rural areas that are not densely populated, and they spend a lot of time outside in the sun tilling their gardens, tending their goats and cattle, walking long distances to fetch water, or playing cards or drinking out in open village squares, all became a blessing.

Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, if this is indeed a war, then we have won the skirmishes, not the big battles.

If you look at the Covid pandemic as the inevitable existential threat that generations and nations have faced in human history, the big weapon is either a vaccine or a cure. Those are a product of mobilisation of knowledge, money, and organisation.

One can hear the drums already beating, and organisation is forming against what has been dubbed “vaccine apartheid”. That a vaccine against Covid is a global good, and everyone, rich and poor, should have quick access.

But that is an argument about sharing, not making the cake. We should be making the cake.

Previous generations have risen to the challenge. Africans stood up and fought for independence, and in Kenya the Mau Mau uprising fought the colonial land grab. When independence soured, and the generals took over in coups and one-party civilian dictators entrenched themselves, many still confronted them, and died trying.

The Kenyan democracy movement was one of Africa’s most heroic. And in Uganda, a bunch of young people committed class suicide, went to the bush, and overthrew first, military dictator Idi Amin, and then under now-President Yoweri Museveni, a subsequent election-stealing regime.

But this virus thing has exposed us. A couple of African countries have the researchers who are clever enough to try for a vaccine. Indeed some, like South Africa, Ethiopia, and of course savvy Senegal, have been tinkering.

Overall, though, it comes down to money. If you read about the kind of money companies in the US, Europe, and Asia are spending on researching vaccines, it’s equivalent – and even less – than the amounts stolen by the political elite and their business cronies in several African countries in a year.

And, if the reports are correct, it is nearly equal to the sums that have been eaten in Covid-related corruption in some African countries that we shall not name here.

To the extent that we have not yet made a grand entrance on the Covid vaccine and treatment stage, then, is really not a scientific failure. It is a political one. And, if you want to add insult to injury, you could say it is also a failure of generational imagination. We used to be better than this. And still can be.