After the murder of George Floyd by a US police officer in 2020, the world saw widespread demonstrations against racial injustice. The outburst was so impossible to ignore that even corporate figures felt the need to perform a pantomime of support for the cause. One, the CEO of multinational biotechnology corporation AstraZeneca, boldly declared that ‘urgent change is needed in society to tackle racism and to ensure equality for all, regardless of colour.’
A month after this declaration, AstraZeneca announced their exclusive partnership with the team of Oxford researchers who had previously pledged to share rights to their vaccine with all manufacturers. This deal struck a blow to Africa in particular, further delaying global immunisation and ultimately contributing to the still-widening vaccine disparity between that continent and the rest of the world.
This is just one example of the emptiness of corporate gestures toward ‘urgent change’ while the edifice of neocolonialism remains in place. Put simply, as long as the fortunes of the African continent are in the hands of those who place profit before the lives of human beings, there will never be global racial justice.
At the time of writing, 80 per cent of those over 12 years of age in Britain have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost 4,000 miles away, a mere 0.1 per cent of the Congolese population have received a dose. On a global scale, the disparity is stark: of the 7.1 billion vaccines administered worldwide, the vast majority have gone to the wealthiest countries — a disparity that constitutes nothing short of a vaccine apartheid.
The terminology we use today to describe the world order divides the wealthy ‘Global North’ from the impoverished ‘Global South’, the latter generally consisting of Africa and parts of Latin America and South Asia. In terms of vaccine distribution, though, Africa stands leagues apart from the rest of the Global South, which have — to a limited extent — managed to secure a relative degree of freedom from neocolonial control and pursued developmentalist policies.
In contrast, Africa has remained governed under neoliberalism and dependent on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank for loans to procure vaccines. And it shows: in October, the vast majority of African countries missed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target for Covid-19 vaccination. Only fifteen of its fifty-four countries have managed to fully vaccinate 10 per cent of their population, and these countries are heavily concentrated in more prosperous northern and island states.
It was not always this way. In the aftermath of the Second World War, with the old colonial powers weakened, the African continent rose up to cast off its imperial masters and forge its own destiny. This period is popularly remembered as one of socialist development in Africa, but emphasis on self-determination was present across the ideological spectrum. As outlined by the Post-Colonialisms Today Working Group:
Capitalist-oriented Kenya, socialist humanist Zambia, scientific socialist Ghana, Negritu-dist Senegal, and Houphouët-Boigny’s Côte d’Ivoire (then the Ivory Coast) constructed a central role for the state in post-colonial social and economic transformation, often driven by the collective ethos of meeting society’s needs in the absence of any significant local private capitalist class and the levels of investment necessary for transformation.
Notwithstanding, socialist African leaders who sought to break away from Western dependence rarely lasted long. The playbook is a familiar one: following removal from power through coup or assassination, the subsequent government would welcome IMF loans contingent on vast privatisation of state enterprises and government spen-ding cuts.
From Congo’s Patrice Lumumba in 1961 to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in 1966 to Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara in 1987, African leaders seeking true independence — economic and political — were deposed. As a result, many argue that since the 1980s the African continent has been subject to near-perpetual austerity.
With progressive governments undermined and removed, the neocolonial status quo has gone largely unchanged. Foreign capital extracts the bountiful raw materials of the continent largely through exploitation of African labour to be made into finished goods and exported back to Africa; thus, in the words of Kwame Nkrumah, ‘the soil continue[s] to enrich, not Africans predominantly, but groups and individuals who operate to Africa’s impoverishment.’
The concepts of ‘development’ and ‘underdevelopment’ must be understood in order to comprehend this relationship. In his groundbreaking 1972 work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Guyanese revolutionary historian Walter Rodney asserts that ‘underdevelopment is not absence of development’; rather, as indicated by his title, underdevelopment is a consequence of capitalist development.
To have development (the accumulation of capital, resources, and technological advancement), there must be underdevelopment (impoverishment, hardship, and technological backwardness). This is the reality of neocolonialism today: despite nominal ‘independence’, underdeveloped African nations remain largely economically and politically dependent on the Global North, in a relationship that underpins continued underdevelopment in turn.
This exploitation is the defining feature of neocolonialism, and it explains why one of the most materially rich continents in the world is also the poorest. The consequences of this relationship for vaccine distribution are so severe that even the established political class has found them impossible to ignore. Former Labour leader and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for example, recently condemned the European Union for what he called its ‘neocolonial approach to global health.’
But this imbalance goes beyond the EU. Even before the first vaccines had been approved, the premier world power, the United States — and later, other Western nations such as the United Kingdom and Canada — had been promised the first round of doses to a figure totalling around one hundred million. Today, almost two years after the pandemic began, the poorest nations continue to struggle to provide first doses, while the richest are rolling out booster shots.
In this system, the IMF and World Bank are key players. In order to secure the funds for vaccine procurement, many African nations have had to rely on the latter for loans. This ranges from some of the largest sub-Saharan nations like Ghana, who requested a loan of approximately $200 million, to the smallest like Eswatini, who received $5 million. To pay back these loans, when the pandemic subsides African countries will be ‘encouraged’ by the IMF to adopt austerity measures once more, further contributing to the cycle of debt and poverty imposed on Africa by Western ‘aid’.
The Limits of Charity
For many liberals, the obvious solution to Africa’s problems lies in charity — but the evidence demonstrates how futile this is in practice. From the very beginning of the crisis, charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have offered to play a role in global vaccine distribution, but only once intellectual property rights were respected. This even led to opposing patent waivers when they were brought to the World Trade Organization by India and South Africa.
A more prominent and successful charitable effort to widen vaccine access saw Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the World Health Organization collaborate to form Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), with UNICEF responsible for logistics.
By buying into COVAX, rich nations would subsidise the cost of vaccines for poorer nations, with the aim of providing enough vaccines to protect at least 20 per cent of the population in 92 low-to medium-income countries. Participating rich countries also pledged any surplus vaccine supplies to those in need. At the time of writing, COVAX has distributed around 500 million vaccines to 144 participants. It’s an impressive number, but woefully short of its target of two billion vaccines by the end of 2021.
On the logistical side, the rollout has also left much to be desired. The Democratic Republic of Congo returned 1.3 million COVAX vaccines in April, citing their expiration; the subsequent month saw Malawi burn nearly 200,000 on the same basis. In all, around 450,000 vaccines, among them COVAX donations, have been destroyed across seven African countries.
The relative weakness of such interventions means Africa remains a long way from full health. COVAX has placed the blame for poor rollout at the feet of wealthy nations’ hoarding, but the truth is that its failure was a foregone conclusion as long as the global response to Covid remained driven by profit. Capitalism is incapable of efficiently and equitably allocating resources — and charity can’t fix that.
But some things could. For a glimpse at what could have been for Africa, one need only look at the resounding success of the socialist Republic of Cuba which, foregoing negotiation with multinational pharmaceutical corporations or donations via COVAX, chose to develop its own vaccines. The first of these to reach the trial stage was the aptly named Soberana, or ‘Sovereign’.
Cuba is currently under a decades-long illegal US blockade, severely hampering its ability to trade with the world and acquire essential materials needed for vaccine development. As explained by Dagmar García-Rivera, director of research at Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute:
In Cuba, we don’t have all the raw materials and supplies we’ll need for the unprecedented scale of production that vaccinating our whole population requires … They have to be purchased, and for this, we need financing. This is made infinitely more difficult by the US embargo … Procuring the necessary reagents for research and the raw materials for production is a challenge we face every day.
Despite this disadvantage, Cuba has become the sole state vaccine developer in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to date 80.5 per cent of its population has been fully inoculated against Covid-19. Compared to the rates of some of its neighbours, such as Jamaica’s 17% and Haiti’s 0.6%, 80.5% is a marked triumph — one that would only be possible in a nation under blockade through socialist state investment in education and healthcare, which have been at the centre of Cuban development since the 1959 revolution.
Alongside providing vaccines for its own population, Cuba’s approach to the pandemic has practically applied the values of internationalism and solidarity that lie at the heart of socialism. Cuban doctors and medical specialists have been dispatched to almost forty countries spanning five continents to aid the fight against Covid-19. In April, Cuba sent a gift of thirty thousand vaccines to its neighbour Venezuela, which is also suffering from crippling US sanctions, and in September, Cuba announced that it would begin exporting its vaccines, starting with a shipment of 900,000 to socialist Vietnam — bolstered by an additional gift of 150,000 in a show of goodwill.
It should come as little surprise that the IMF was one of those institutions that joined the display of corporate ‘racial justice’ advocacy in 2020. In an issue of Finance and Development it asserted that, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, ‘addressing systemic racism is a moral imperative.’ The fact that this statement came from an institution responsible for condemning generations of black people to debt, poverty, and hardship should demonstrate to all of us just how far this conversation has strayed from substance.
Cuba’s Covid example, on the other hand, is proof of the achievements that can be made through sovereignty, development, and genuine acts of solidarity. Corporations and neoliberal bodies may pay lip-service to rectifying racial injustice, but their theatrics are exposed when concrete alternatives exist. Market forces left more than a billion people in Africa to face Covid-19 without the vaccines available to the West, and anyone who believes that those same forces will free the continent from its forced underdevelopment is dealing in delusion.
As Rodney’s work shows, the status quo that we face is no accident. Vaccine apartheid is a gross and avoidable injustice, and it proves that the struggle of the anti-colonial leaders of the twentieth century remains unfinished. The pandemic has laid bare the reality of Africa’s cycle of debt and dependency. Now all anti-racists must push to bring that cycle to an end.