The scenario epidemiologists have long warned about is now upon us. The emergence of the Omicron variant, which one expert described as “horrific”, is the inevitable outcome of large parts of the world’s population remaining unvaccinated – which has allowed covid-19 to mutate and become more virulent.
The full implications of Omicron, which was discovered by South African scientists, are unclear – including whether it originated in Africa. But early studies show that it has 50 mutations – some of which could help it evade the body’s immune system, resist existing vaccines, and spread faster than previous variants.
As the news of Omicron broke, global markets posted their largest fall in a year. South Africa is experiencing a fourth wave: cases have increased tenfold in a week. And the new variant has appeared in more than 50 countries, including every nation in western Europe.
Rather than following the science, European countries have introduced knee-jerk travel bans targeting southern African countries. They have shot the messenger in ways that “smack of racism and xenophobia” argues Ghana’s health minister, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for an immediate repeal of the bans, which deal a blow to the region’s tourism industry at a critical time.
But the variant shines a spotlight on a larger problem. Roughly two years since covid-19 first emerged in Wuhan, with the official death toll at five million people (and credible estimates as high as seventeen million), there is still no coordinated global response to the health or economic crisis. Instead, governments have adopted a piecemeal approach that pits rich and powerful countries against vulnerable ones.
G7 countries have failed to fulfil the commitments to deliver vaccines they made in June 2021 – commitments that were far from adequate, to begin with. A new scorecard published by my organisation, the ONE Campaign, shows that the European Union has delivered just 22 per cent of the doses it pledged to vulnerable countries. France and Italy have fulfilled less than one-third of their pledges, while the United Kingdom and Germany have fulfilled just 16 per cent and 12 per cent respectively. Strive Masiyiwa, head of the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, characterised rich countries’ response as being: “when we’ve done with saving our own people, we will then attend to you.”
Just 3.4 per cent of the populations of low-income countries are fully vaccinated. Rich countries, where 70 per cent are fully vaccinated, have administered six and a half times as many booster shots as the number of first shots in the poorest countries.
So long as the virus can spread among large parts of the world’s population, it will have ample opportunities to mutate – a risk only heightened by Africa’s high rate of HIV/AIDS, which weakens the immune system. Laurie Garrett, a columnist at Foreign Policy, wrote: “if humanity wanted to give a coronavirus a golden opportunity to circulate, adapt, and evolve … eventually taking on a form that threatens all – rich and poor alike – it couldn’t do better than to ignore the estimated 38.7 million people living with HIV, especially the roughly 10 million who remain untreated, most of them residing in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Meanwhile, the economic fallout has been severe. In January 2021, a group of economists commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce calculated the economic effects of a range of scenarios in which rich countries continued to hoard vaccine supply. In their extreme scenario, supply chain disruptions would cost the global economy $9 trillion – Germany would bear $79 billion, France $54 billion, and Italy $43 billion of that burden. That scenario is now the reality; each citizen in these countries could, on average, be $800 better off this year if the distribution of vaccines had been more equitable. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is warning that the Omicron variant could derail the global economic recovery. And, in the United States, top Federal Reserve official Loretta Mester warns that the variant threatens to cause further inflation, with is already at its highest rate in three decades.
This myopic approach to managing the pandemic has geopolitical implications, at a time of growing competition for influence in Africa. Last month, as the news of Omicron was breaking, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit that his country would commit an additional 1 billion vaccines to Africa in 2022 (more than the EU’s global vaccine-sharing commitment). Xi also said that China would share 25 per cent of its allocation of IMF special drawing rights (SDRs) with Africa – following a request made just a couple of days earlier by Senegalese President Macky Sall. In May 2021, European and African leaders wrote an opinion piece calling for countries to redirect $100 billion in SDRs to Africa. But, seven months later, EU member states France, Spain, and Italy have committed just 20 per cent of their allocation, totalling $12.2 billion, to the continent.
I have written before about how Western states’ response to the pandemic has led to a new low in African countries’ trust in them. The recent travel bans are just the latest in a series of diplomatic faux pas that compound the anger felt by African leaders. Another is the EU’s implementation of its vaccine certificate, which initially did not accept vaccines delivered through COVAX.
Some international media outlets and government leaders have implied that vaccine hesitancy – a challenge everywhere – is the primary barrier to Africa’s vaccination efforts. These arguments only rub salt in the wound. They deflect attention away from the gross disparities in vaccine supply, rich countries’ failure to invest in the health infrastructure needed for an international response, and evidence that vaccine acceptance is actually higher in many African countries than in Europe or North America.
All this bodes ill for the EU’s February 2022 summit with the African Union, which is designed to reset relations between Africa and Europe. The European Commission states that one of its flagship proposals ahead of the summit, the Global Gateway, will catalyse €300 billion of investment in developing countries to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet, as the Economist recently described it (perhaps unkindly), the Global Gatewayis “caked in bullshit” – merely a combination of “existing commitments, loan guarantees and heroic assumptions about the ability of the club to ‘crowd in’ private investment, rather than actual new spending”.
So, here is an alternative idea: European leaders should implement a decisive and credible plan to end the pandemic everywhere.
At the G20 Summit last month, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and other leaders set the target of vaccinating 70 per cent of the population in every country income group by September 2022. So far, their efforts to achieve this are far off track.
European leaders should fully fund a plan to ensure that they achieve this target – by delivering their share of the $43 billion needed to secure sufficient vaccine supply and investing in healthcare systems to roll out vaccines and counter hesitancy. They should support a temporary waiver on intellectual property for medicines related to covid-19, increase their support initiatives to scale up production of vaccines and the vials to hold them, and share doses rapidly – while being transparent about manufacturing timelines, to enable countries to prepare for their arrival.
European leaders should also help vulnerable countries adjust to the economic shock of the pandemic. They should answer their African counterparts’ call to allocate an additional $100 billion to the World Bank’s concessional lending arm at a meeting in Tokyo this month. And they should work to fulfil the G20 commitment on SDRs.
Omicron leaves European leaders with a stark choice: either persist with a strategy that is failing from an epidemiological, economic, and geopolitical perspective or finally agree on a global plan to control the pandemic. The latter is in their own interest.
David McNair is executive director of global policy at the ONE Campaign and an ECFR Council Member,
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.