Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Lack of Vaccines Fuels Terrorism in Africa

To avoid more instability, it is time for all wealthy nations to start sharing.

By , the former Uganda information minister.
A health care worker salutes from a window of the Mulago National Referral Hospital on the first day of the country’s vaccination rollout after it received the first batch of AstraZeneca doses in Kampala, Uganda, on March 10.
A health care worker salutes from a window of the Mulago National Referral Hospital on the first day of the country’s vaccination rollout after it received the first batch of AstraZeneca doses in Kampala, Uganda, on March 10. Luke Dray/Getty Images

Earlier this month, leaders from across Africa convened in Paris to discuss the most pressing challenge facing the continent today: economic recovery in the wake of the most destructive global health crisis in living memory. Over the course of that summit, a common theme emerged. There is a direct line threading a lack of vaccines to lockdowns to economic depression to the resurgence of Islamist terrorism.

To date, less than 2 percent of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally have been in Africa despite the continent being home to some 1.3 billion people (or around 16 percent of the world population). In Uganda, just 1 percent of the population has been vaccinated. The continent lacks its own established vaccine manufacturing centers and is therefore dependent on supplies from the rest of the world. However, international initiatives like COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), established to ensure equitable vaccine supply to low-income countries, have experienced teething problems.

Principle among these has been the ongoing surge of the virus in India, resulting in vast human suffering and a severe dent to Africa’s supply of much-needed second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Other challenges have been avoidable and, crucially, remain addressable.

COVAX relies on buy-in from high-income countries to subsidize vaccines for their poorer counterparts, ensuring vaccines are not only accessible in wealthier countries. But most rich governments locked into separate, bilateral contracts with pharmaceutical companies instead, resulting in a dearth of funding for COVAX and a surplus of vaccines in those wealthy countries.

Meanwhile, under the fog of COVID-19, the specter of conflict is rising. With African governments and their limited resources occupied by the pandemic, terrorist groups across the continent have become emboldened. We are already seeing a resurgence in attacks. Around Lake Chad, Boko Haram has revived itself, even though it had been largely defeated just a few years ago thanks to combined military efforts of the countries in the area. In northern Mozambique, Islamist militants’ attacks have sharply increased. And across the Sahel, a plethora of al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated groups are terrorizing communities. These groups thrive on economic instability, profiting from poverty to turn desperate, starving people into recruits.

Without sufficient access to vaccines, instability can only worsen. Governments across Africa are reduced to blunt instruments, such as economically damaging lockdowns, to protect citizens. Subsequently, businesses and livelihoods are still stalled, severely impacting the economies of what are already some of the poorest countries in the world.

These nations risk becoming breeding grounds for militant and terrorist groups. And as groups with international affiliates strengthen their footholds on the continent, what were once localized problems become sources of sustenance to global networks of terror. All this will only make bad economic problems worse. The observation that conflict is bad for business is banal. But it could also rupture global supply chains. Costs for many extractives could rise, and given high tech’s reliance on minerals under the continent, this is worrying.

Even without factoring in conflict, the cost to the global economy if poor countries remain unvaccinated is vast. A recent study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce predicts the world could suffer losses exceeding $9 trillion, at least half of which would be absorbed by wealthy, vaccinated nations.

In short, if the vaccine dearth in Africa and low-income countries elsewhere is not urgently addressed, the cost for Western nations—both in terms of finance and security—will be considerably higher than sharing hoarded vaccines or investing in accelerated production. Frugality now only defers costs later. When conflict rears its head, as is the case in Africa, it is not only those directly involved that suffer the consequences. And as the president of Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, wrote recently, “around the world, conflict and the coronavirus have never been far apart.”

It seems some countries are at last starting to heed the impending threat. U.S. President Joe Biden announced just last week, for example, the United States would share the bulk of its unused vaccines through COVAX and is expected to announce at the G-7 summit that it will buy several hundred million more vaccines for the same purpose. If true, this is a promising start. If other wealthy, vaccinated nations follow suit, it may not be a case of “too little, too late.”

The situation is dire. But nevertheless, Africa should not be seen as a ticking time bomb. Rather, it is an opportunity waiting to be taken. The continent boasts the youngest population of any in the world. In Uganda, 77 percent of the country’s 47 million citizens are under the age of 25. This increasingly tech-savvy, educated, and outward-looking demographic constitutes the global consumers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow. So as the world begins to tentatively emerge from the rubble of the pandemic, we should all regrow and rebuild together for the benefit of all.

Rose Namayanja is a Ugandan lawyer and author. She is the former Uganda information minister and current Deputy Secretary General of the National Resistance Movement, the ruling party. She is a graduate of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.