Harare – When the SADC was started, as the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC), the idea was to ensure that countries in the region use their collective strength for mutual progress.
On April 1, 1980 the leaders of the founding member states of Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland (now Eswatini), the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe agreed that “one hand washes the other”, as the saying goes.
Although the main point of interlocution was economic cooperation, SADC evolved in name and form to the point of becoming a representation of regional cohesion.
On matters of mutual concern, countries have often been seen coming to each other’s aid.
Today SADC is widely lauded as one of the most organised regional economic communities in the comity of nations.
But the argument can be made that SADC is yet to fully tap into its communal power in the battle against COVID-19.
Slightly over a year since the virus was declared a global health concern, states are moving from non-pharmaceutical interventions like lockdowns in favour of medical breakthroughs in the form of vaccines.
As all the countries in the world jostle to ensure they get their hands on the vaccine, supply is yet to meet demand.
In a recent address, World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it may be hard for low income countries to get their hands on vaccines.
“At present, rich countries with just 16 percent of the world’s population have bought up to 60 percent of the world’s vaccine supply. Many of these countries aim to vaccinate 70 percent of their adult population by midyear in pursuit of herd immunity,” he said.
The majority of countries in Southern Africa are classified as low-income economies and they have been dependent on donations and facilities such as those provided by the African Union and COVAX to access vaccines.
COVAX is an initiative by WHO and CEPI GAVI, meant to ensure that every country gets access to vaccines in the face of market bullying by those with resources.
The target is to ensure that at least two billion vaccines are dispensed to different countries.
Now Canada and other rich countries have indicated that they too want to benefit from facilities like COVAX.
This means bloc’s like SADC should start exploring and activating alternatives.
There have been questions why SADC has not organised itself to collectively purchase vaccines. There has been little indication of a communal fight in the region to buy the drugs.
As it stands, individual countries in SADC do not have enough clout and resources to secure enough vaccines to achieve herd immunity for the region.
This is why it is important for SADC to come up with a mechanism to collectively purchase vaccines.
A starting point would be to get experts from all 16 member states to debate the science and logistics of communal vaccine acquisition.
Every country has something to contribute. Some have the money, some have the technical expertise, and some have the international linkages at commercial and diplomatic levels to unlock vaccine supplies.
Besides importing, SADC can collectively engage countries like China, India and Russia to establish a facility in Southern Africa for production of vaccines under patent.
Additionally, with the expertise from different countries, it would be prudent for SADC to have its own well-resourced Regional Centres for Disease Control.
After all, SADC is the region worst affected by the pandemic in Africa in terms of infections and deaths.
COVID-19 is not the last crisis the region will face, and hence establishment of strong institutions and systems for deployment against future challenges makes sense.
In a recent statement on the region’s COVID-19 response, SADC Chair and Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi made a clarion call on the need to combine forces.
“In this regard, we recommend the SADC Committee of Ministers of Health to establish a strong regional collaborative strategy which pools resources together to urgently acquire the vaccine for distribution to our citizens setting priorities in accordance with the level of risk. (We must) enhance vaccine research capabilities and develop regional manufacturing capacity for vaccines in the future,” President Nyusi said.
He added: “Following up surging of COVID-19 cases, we must intensify co-operation and collaboration between member states, through increased data sharing, policy harmonisation and standardisation, pooled procurement of essential medical and non-medical equipment to address the pandemic in a more effective way.”
There is a legal foundation on which such collaboration can be anchored.
SADC has a Protocol on Health which was approved in 1999 and operationalised in 2004.
It reads, “Acknowledging that a healthy population is a prerequisite for sustainable human development and increased productivity, the Protocol on Health promotes co-operation among member states on key health issues.
“It recognises that this cooperation is essential for the control of communicable and non-communicable diseases and for addressing common health concerns, including emergency health services, disaster management, and bulk purchasing of essential drugs.”
The existential threat posed by COVID-19 is as good a reason as any to test the efficacy of the SADC Protocol on Health.
China: A friend indeed
Windhoek – China has been at the forefront of availing free vaccines to African countries, further reinforcing its status as an “all-weather friend” of governments on the continent.
The vaccine aid comes at a time Sino-African bilateral relations are strengthening, with statistics showing China’s investments across the continent top US$60 billion.
As of this week, China has committed millions of vaccines to individual countries as well as to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team.
To date, 54 of Africa’s 55 states have received personal protective equipment from China, and Beijing has donated 30 million testing kits, 10,000 ventilators, and 80 million masks monthly, in addition to extending expert teams to offer technical assistance.
Chinese officials also say construction of a new Africa Centre of Disease Control headquarters will start “ahead of schedule” this year.
And across SADC, leaders have been effusive in their appreciation of Chinese support. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has hailed the superpower for taking a leading role in fighting the pandemic globally; Namibia’s President Hage Geingob has described the country as a true brother; and Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has called it an all-weather friend.
All of this follows a commitment made by China’s President Xi Jinping late last year to the effect that his country would do all it could to assist Africa. He called Africa a “priority” in China’s global effort to tame the pandemic.
“We are making good on our promises at the earlier Beijing Summit (of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation) with concrete efforts, as well as contributing to the global anti-epidemic co-operation. We believe that humans will defeat the epidemic ultimately, and Chinese and African people will definitely live a better life,” President Xi.
Not only that. China is using its considerable clout at the G20 to push for a debt deal for Africa.