Pandemic’s Third Wave Hits Africa
With just 1 percent of the continent’s population fully vaccinated and a higher death rate than the rest of the world, Africa is facing a dangerous surge in infections.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: Africa is on a dangerous precipice as COVID-19 spreads, Algeria’s election was historic for all the wrong reasons, and the literary essay that broke the internet.
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As wealthy countries prepare to reopen for the summer after their populations are largely vaccinated, Africa faces a third wave of COVID-19 infections. A series of sobering statistics reveal how dire the pandemic still is for the continent.
Africa has now surpassed more than 5 million COVID-19 cases, a grim milestone on a continent that initially seemed to be spared the worst of the global pandemic. Africa accounts for just 2.9 percent of cases globally but 3.7 percent of deaths. What’s more, previous studies show seriously ill COVID-19 patients are more likely to die in Africa than anywhere else in the world.
New infections. In May, the continent recorded an average 20 percent surge in cases, with some countries seeing a 30 percent surge, including South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Uganda.
The latter saw a 131 percent week-on-week rise toward the end of May. Uganda has recorded more than 71,500 cases, but the numbers could be much higher as testing rates remain low. As hospitals fill up and deaths mount, Uganda has introduced new restrictions in a bid to slow the third wave. The Delta variant, first discovered in India, has been identified in 14 African countries as of June 17.
Nearly two thirds of 88,000 new cases recorded in the first week of June were attributed to just five countries: Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zambia. This new wave of infections is already placing strain on health care facilities. A World Health Organization (WHO) survey of 23 countries showed most had less than one intensive care unit bed per 100,000 people. Even fewer had intensive care units equipped with ventilators.
Missed goal. Nearly 90 percent of African countries are set to miss a September target to vaccinate 10 percent of their populations. The goal, set by the World Health Organization, is still lower than in most wealthier nations but essential in curbing the spread of the pandemic in Africa.
Only seven countries are on track to reach the goal: Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius, Morocco, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles, and Zimbabwe. Six more, Eswatini, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Rwanda, and Tunisia, could reach the target if they received a boost in vaccine supply.
Vaccines in short supply. As the current wave of infections threatens to overtake previous peaks, vaccine rollouts still lag behind. About 12 million people are fully vaccinated, which is less than 1 percent of Africa’s population. More than 5 million jabs were administered per week in mid-June, but that is still likely too slow to outpace the current infection rate. Much of the slow rate of vaccinations is the result of constrained supply as wealthier nations continue to hoard vaccines and the Serum Institute of India, a major producer of the AstraZeneca vaccine, slows exports and redirects its supplies to counter India’s own devastating surge.
African leaders have held several meetings to discuss the likelihood of creating their own desperately needed vaccines. Vaccine manufacturers are protected by international intellectual property laws, which countries like South Africa have so far unsuccessfully lobbied the World Trade Organization to waive.
Although the United States and France have shown support for the waiver, the United Kingdom, some European Union leaders, and pharmaceutical companies are still opposing it. If vaccine manufacturers were moved to share their technology, only 10 manufacturers in five countries would be able to begin work immediately. Overcoming the constraints of time, knowledge transfer, and capital investment would not outpace the current rate of infections.
The numbers exemplify the inequality of the global vaccine rollout. Early on, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and others warned of the immorality and fatal danger of vaccine nationalism. Although countries like the United States and France are now pledging to share their vaccine supplies with the continent, for the thousands of people who have been infected recently, it’s too little, too late.
There is some good news though: On June 21, the WHO announced it would help set up a “technology transfer hub” in South Africa to start producing mRNA vaccines that could be ready in nine to 12 months. “WHO and partners will bring in the production know-how, quality control and necessary licenses to a single entity to facilitate a broad and rapid technology transfer to multiple recipients,” said a WHO statement.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, June 23: Southern African leaders meet in Maputo to discuss the insurgency in northern Mozambique.
Wednesday, June 23: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas hosts the Second Berlin Conference on Libya, which will include U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Saturday, June 26: The Arab League meets in Cairo to discuss a European Parliament resolution condemning Morocco for using migrant children as pawns for political pressure.
What We’re Watching
Ethiopia votes amid crisis. Refusing to further delay elections meant to be held in 2020, Ethiopia pushed ahead with federal and regional elections on June 21. For the first time, 20 parties competed on the ballot, a significant shift from years of dominance by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party is expected to win despite the fragmented political environment and the ongoing Tigray conflict.
While Ethiopia’s National Election Board tweeted images of socially distanced, mask-wearing Ethiopians peacefully lining up to cast their ballots, the country’s major opposition leaders languished in jail, including Oromo Federalist Congress leader Jawar Mohammed, who faces terrorism charges. Rather than the unifying vote Abiy promised when he first took power, some analysts warn the election could foment division and lead to wider conflict.
Swiss Court convicts Liberian warlord. Alieu Kosiah became the first war criminal convicted in a Swiss civilian court on June 18 and one of a handful of Liberian warlords who faced consequences for the country’s gruesome civil war.
Kosiah had been living in Switzerland when he was arrested in 2014 under a 2011 law that allows the prosecution of serious crimes committed outside of Switzerland. Kosiah was found guilty on charges of recruiting child soldiers, murder, rape and the desecration of corpses.
Algeria’s boycotted election. In an election that was meant to be historic—the first since the removal of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika—voter turnout was only 30 percent. That is a victory for opposition politicians and the pro-democracy Hirak movement, which called on voters to stay home.
The Hirak movement, which mobilized thousands of people against the prospect of a fifth term for Bouteflika and forced his resignation after two decades, boycotted the election. In the weeks before the vote, the government cracked down on the group, arresting its leaders. Bouteflika’s old party, the National Liberation Front, won the most votes but did not secure enough seats to form a government.
Botswana’s record diamond. Botswanan President Mokgweetsi Masisi unveiled the third largest diamond ever discovered on June 16. At 1,098 carats, it is only slightly smaller than the 1,109 carat Lesedi La Rona, discovered in Botswana in 2015, and about one-third of the size of the largest diamond ever discovered, the 3,106 carat Cullinan Diamond found in South Africa in 1905.
It’s a boon for the diamond-producing country, which has seen sales and production dip and has struggled to diversify its stagnant economy and create jobs from the increasingly mechanized mining sector. Meanwhile, a frenzied diamond rush in South Africa saw hundreds of people rush to a rural town with picks and axes to dig for what turned out to be quartz.
Chart of the Week
A slow increase in vaccines. An estimated 42 million vaccine doses have been administered in Africa, an improvement from the first quarter of the year but still a worryingly slow pace. Only 0.79 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated.
This Week in Culture
The essay that broke the literary internet. In an essay titled “It Is Obscene,” celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie skewered “social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness.”
What the literary world has described as a “feud” between two Nigerian authors is, in fact, a larger conversation about public discourse and the limits of legitimate debate on social media and so-called “cancel culture”—and a potentially more visceral conversation on transgender rights and endangering the lives of queer Africans.
The lengthy three-part essay was aimed specifically at two emerging authors—both unnamed in the text—who criticized Adichie for her comments on transgender women. One of them was nonbinary writer Akwaeke Emezi, who responded to Adichie’s essay, calling her out for transphobia. The other writer has not yet come forward.
“I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are,” Adichie told Britain’s Channel 4 in 2017.
Her 2020 description of J.K. Rowling’s article on sex and gender—widely criticized as transphobic—as “a perfectly reasonable piece” sparked further controversy.
In her essay, Adichie reiterated she “fully supports the rights of trans people,” explaining her 2017 comments as “the larger point of which was to say that we should be able to acknowledge difference while being fully inclusive, that in fact the whole premise of inclusiveness is difference.”
Writers who had previously participated in Adichie’s workshop for Nigerian authors criticized Adichie on social media, inspiring this month’s controversial essay. “No matter how much other Nigerians try to gaslight you into thinking that this is hyperbole, those of us who live inside it know very well that the stakes are life and death,” Emezi said in an Instagram post.
Both sides feel betrayed—Adichie for the public unkindness she said the two writers showed her in their social media responses, which failed to take into account her record as a feminist and position on gay rights in Africa, and Emezi for the real danger transgender people still face and the fear that Adichie’s high profile could give legitimacy to transphobia.
As Ainehi Edoro, editor of African literary site Brittle Paper wrote, “their conflict may eventually give us the space to think more rigorously and deeply about issues that bear on the life and survival of everyone in our communities.”
South Sudan’s other peace process. South Sudan’s National Dialogue, first announced and met with skepticism in 2016, has seen the kind of public participation that is rare in the troubled young country. “In a country where people are so often portrayed as passive observers to external interventions … the idea of putting ordinary citizens in control of their own destiny represents a paradigm shift,” human rights lawyer David Deng wrote in African Arguments.
Sanctions and sovereignty. As U.S. sanctions on Ethiopia start to bite, the country’s government has claimed punitive measures in response to the war in Tigray are a violation of its sovereignty. Teferi Mergo wrote in Global Policy that this is a sign of Ethiopia’s misguided exceptionalism. Addis Ababa “remains dependent on foreign aid to meet some of the basic needs of its population,” he noted.
“Unless being an ‘exceptional country’ means dependence on the generosity of others for survival, it is difficult to reconcile the rhetoric coming from Addis Ababa with the difficult economic realities the country is facing.”
Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel
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