Africa may not reach herd immunity against Covid-19 until 2023

A woman holds a placard during a protest against Covid-19 vaccination distribution inequality outside the Johnson and Johnson offices in Cape Town earlier this month.
A woman holds a placard during a protest against Covid-19 vaccination distribution inequality outside the Johnson and Johnson offices in Cape Town earlier this month.
Image: Mike Hutchings.
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A recent white paper by the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasting the world’s vaccination timelines estimates that Africa might not achieve widespread coverage against the novel coronavirus (defined as 60-70% of its population) until 2023. And for the continent’s poorest countries, “mass immunization will take until 2024, if it happens at all.”

South Africa is the only country in the continent which the EIU expects will be able to vaccinate its population any earlier, forecasting mid-2022. The EIU also estimates similar delays and timelines for a handful of countries in South America and South East Asia. However, Africa is expected to be the region facing the most severe delays.

One of the biggest factors the EIU cites in its analysis for the delayed vaccine rollout is the fact that more than 50% of the world’s vaccines have been “pre-booked” by predominantly wealthy countries, making up 15% of the world’s population.  This is likely to exacerbate several local factors restricting vaccine rollouts, including logistics such as production capacity, supply chain, the availability of healthcare workers, financing, and vaccine hesitancy. (Developed countries have also resisted calls to loosen intellectual property restrictions as a way of speeding vaccination.)

The analysis also anticipates that some countries may not find vaccination worth their while.

“The contrast between rich countries and poorer ones is stark,” writes EIU’s global forecasting director Agathe Demarais. “Most developing countries will not have widespread access to the shots before 2023 at the earliest. Some of these countries—particularly poorer ones with a young demographic profile—may well lose the motivation to distribute vaccines, especially if the disease has spread widely or if the associated costs prove too high,” the report states.

Many African countries are relying on the WHO-led initiative COVAX to vaccinate 20% of their population this year. But, the analysis notes, “COVAX supplies may be slow to arrive, especially if delays in the production for and delivery to richer countries push back delivery dates for poorer nations.”

These protracted timelines are expected to further drag down the economies of developing nations which are already struggling to recover from pandemic-related lockdowns and disruptions over the last year. And without comprehensive global vaccination, the world risks not only a widening economic divide, but also the possibility that new variants or the coronavirus may emerge as a result of gaps, potentially bringing us back to “square one.”

The continent’s response to the pandemic and its economic recovery could be buoyed by a few factors: its low coronavirus rates, its extensive experience handling infectious diseases, and the resilience of some of its more diversified economies.  However these may not be sufficient to get the continent through to the other side if wealthy countries hoard their supplies.

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