David Pratt: ‘Vaccine apartheid’, Russia builds-up presence and nation on a knife edge

IT was only a matter of time before a new Covid-19 variant made its presence felt on the world. In many respects the international community owes a debt of gratitude for the speed at which scientists in South Africa, where the new variant was detected, alerted the global authorities.

The latest threat called B.1.1.529, is ­described as especially worrying ­because it comprises of a very unusual ­constellation of mutations which have the potential to evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible.

That this new variant should stem from the African continent was never a foregone conclusion. That said, it should perhaps come as little surprise given the struggle the continent has had in ­containing the virus through the lack of available vaccine provision.

Currently the vaccination rate in ­Africa a continent of 54 countries and 1.3 ­billion people sits at 9.8%. In other words, this vast section of the global ­community is still struggling to reach double ­digits in vaccinating its population. Even the ­second worst performer in terms of ­continents, Asia, has reached 60% ­vaccination rates.

In such a disparate region as Africa there are of course wide discrepancies in terms of vaccination rates with nations like Morocco having vaccinated 65% of its people while in South Africa, where the latest variant was detected, 27% are vaccinated with other countries like Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) trailing at 5.4% and 0.13% respectively.

Right now, as outlined earlier this year by Ahmed Kalebi, a prominent ­Kenyan pathologist and founder of Lancet ­Kenya, there are only two countries in the whole of Africa that have the capacity to ­produce vaccines, these being South ­Africa and Senegal.

Speaking to Al Jazeera a few months ago, Kalebi pointed out that it is not ­always as simple as blaming Western ­nations for Africa’s woeful vaccination rate, describing how in his own native Kenya, “money is poured into politics… or other things but health”.

But Kalebi like many other ­prominent African medical practitioners, also ­recognises that almost two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, much of Africa is still asking for vaccines and little help is forthcoming from richer more developed nations.

In what has been described as “vaccine apartheid” by no less than South Africa’s own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the ­statistics speak for themselves.

Just to put Africa’s 9.8% vaccination rate into perspective, this compares to 60% of the US population and upwards of 75% in some wealthy European and Asian nations.

Writing just a few days ago in Foreign Policy magazine, British-Nigerian journalist Nosmot Gbadamosi, outlined how research from the global health ­intelligence think-tank Airfinity, detailed how 96% of Moderna’s vaccines, which ­benefited from US taxpayer-funded technology, have gone to wealthier countries.

The report by Airfinity published this month also found that among countries that participated in clinical trials, ­poorer countries received fewer doses than ­richer ones of the vaccines they helped test. Richer nations also continue to stockpile vaccines.

For its part, the administration of US president Joe Biden has brought pressure to bear, resulting in Moderna agreeing to sell 110 million doses to African Union nations, but this will reach less than 10% of the continent’s population.

In a recent article published by the ­Johannesburg based social justice media outlet New Frame, authors outlined what is seen by many as rich countries and their big pharmaceutical companies all but abandoning an entire continent.

“Some of my colleagues have started to call it racism. Letting a whole continent have such limited access to vaccines smacks of nothing less,” Mohga Kamal-Yanni, senior health policy adviser at The Peoples Vaccine Alliance was quoted by New Frame as saying.

Some African leaders point to the ­backfiring of Covax as a prime example of how the world has failed Africa. Covax was the vaccine mainstay of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator initiative, whereby pharmaceutical companies were supposed to voluntarily pool their manufactured vaccines and rich nations were to pay for doses to be made available to poorer countries.

As a new variant emerges from Africa and the continent continues to struggle with vaccine provision, one can’t help wondering if the international ­community might now deeply regret not ensuring that vaccines were made equally available for all.

UKRAINE – More Russian sabre rattling or the real thing this time? 

The National:

WE have of course been here before. More than seven years after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, it’s not the first time a massive Russian military build-up in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas has got Washington and its European and Nato allies jumpy.  

“We see an unusual concentration of troops, and we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine,” Nato secretary general Jen Stoltenberg said of the recent troop build-up. 

Moscow for its part has dismissed such concerns as “alarmist”. 

Washington however says, “the build-up is being taken seriously and the United States is not assuming it is a bluff”. 

Dissecting just what is going on in this latest crisis is not much easier than before, given the claims and counterclaims from both sides. But there is no doubt that much is happening on the ground both in eastern Ukraine and in the Ukrainian capital Kiev over the past few days. 

Some reports describe Russian-controlled forces in eastern Ukraine as increasing combat readiness, while Bloomberg news agency cited two “unnamed sources”, as saying that Moscow has “called up tens of thousands of reservists on a scale unprecedented in post-Soviet times”. 

The Ukrainian government and military themselves – no doubt with one eye on ensuring US and Nato support – have also been keen to stress the extent of the Russian threat. 

According to Ukraine Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, Russia is planning an attack around the end of January or early February that would likely involve “airstrikes, artillery and armour attacks”. This would be followed by airborne and amphibious assaults and a smaller land incursion through neighbouring Belarus, Budanov told the Military Times in an exclusive interview. 

But it is perhaps events of the last few days in Kiev where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a Friday press conference claimed that his country’s security services had uncovered a plot for an attempted coup with the involvement of Russians that has rattled analysts most.  

According to Reuters Zelenskiy did not give full details of the coup plot and did not accuse the Russian state of involvement, though he also spoke at length at the press conference of a threat of Russian military escalation and said Ukraine would be ready for it. 

“We have challenges not only from the Russian Federation and possible escalation – we have big internal challenges. 

“I received information that a coup d’etat will take place in our country on Dec. 1-2,” Zelenskiy said. Ukraine had audio recordings as evidence of the coup plot, Zelenskiy added.  

Once again, the Kremlin shrugged their shoulders in response, swiftly denying any role in any coup plot, saying it had no plans to take part in such acts. 

Whether Russia is indeed about to move militarily on eastern Ukraine, remains anybody’s guess. But should it do so, it will stir into being one almighty international crisis. 

TURKEY – Erdogan under pressure over unpopular economic policies

The National:

A DECADE  ago, it cost around 1.8 Turkish lira to buy a single US dollar, but today that figure stands at almost 10. It’s just one example of the extent to which Turkey’s economy is in freefall under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (above).  

As is well known the bullish Turkish leader is not man who takes criticism easily, if at all, but even Erdogan must see the writing on the wall right now after recent polls showed support for his Justice and Development party (AKP) has fallen around 10 percentage points from parliamentary elections in 2018 to hit historic lows of between 30% and 33%. 

With inflation that accelerated to almost 20% last month, analysts say that something in the region of 30% of the Turkish electorate are now struggling to get by. The minimum wage in Turkey, which was worth the equivalent of £417 at its highest, is now down to just £191. 

The finger pointing for such disastrous fiscal figures is now firmly towards Erdogan whose approach to running Turkey’s $765bn economy has in the eyes of many gone off the rails.  

For so long now the Turkish…

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