KAMPALA – Billionaire philanthropist Mo Ibrahim is sharply criticizing the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines by wealthy nations, urging the international community to “walk the talk" of equitable distribution as Africa desperately lags behind.
Ibrahim, a British mobile phone magnate who was born in Sudan, is hailed as a voice of moral authority across Africa. The 75-year-old earned his fortune by establishing the Celtel mobile phone network across Africa in the 1990s.
He is now using that fortune to promote democracy and political accountability on the continent, including through his sponsorship of the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for African leaders who govern responsibly and who give up their power peacefully.
He lamented the global “competition” for vaccines in an interview with The Associated Press. He said he views the the pandemic-era phrase “nobody is safe until everybody is safe” as a meaningless slogan until there is an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
“They say that while they are hoarding the vaccine. Can you walk the talk? Stop just talking like parrots, you know, and do you really mean what you said?” Ibrahim said late Tuesday in a Zoom call from London, where he is based.
He argued that “at least a reasonable portion” of the vaccines should go to frontline workers in Africa.
The World Health Organization reported last week that COVID-19 vaccine shipments have ground to “a near halt” in Africa at a time when some countries face a spike in cases.
Africa has administered vaccine doses to 31 million of its 1.3 billion people. But only 7 million people are fully vaccinated, according to World Health Organization Africa director Matshidiso Moeti.
Sub-Saharan Africa has on average administered only one vaccine dose per 100 people, compared to a global average of 23 doses per 100 people, she said, reiterating Africa’s ongoing plea for richer countries with significant vaccination coverage to share some of their remaining doses.
President Joe Biden has said the United States would share some of its vaccines.
Ibrahim warned also that Africa cannot afford to sit back, citing a need for greater accountability by governments which pledged in 2001 to spend at least 15% of their national budgets on public health. Economic integration that widens trade among nations is key, he said.
While support from abroad is welcome, he said, “we should rely much more on ourselves. I always thought self-reliance is something important in Africa."
"We really need to build resilient health service in our countries,” he said.
Citing Tanzania under former leader John Magufuli, who died in March, Ibrahim said he was disappointed that some presidents appeared to dismiss the threat from COVID-19.
“We need to hold our leaders accountable,” he said. "You deny and you pay the price... Unfortunately, your people also pay the price. So we need to hold our people accountable for their behavior, for the way they allocate resources. And it is for us in civil society to keep raising this issue.”
Africa has confirmed more than 4.9 million COVID-19 cases, including 132,000 deaths, representing a tiny fraction of the global caseload. But some experts worry that the continent will suffer greatly in the long term if more of its people are not vaccinated in efforts to achieve herd immunity, when enough people are protected through infection or vaccination to make it difficult for a virus to continue to spread.
Achieving that goal will require about 1.5 billion vaccine doses for Africa if there is widespread use of the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine, often the main shot available under the donor-backed COVAX program to ensure access for developing countries.