This is yet more evidence of a dangerous divergence in the global economy. One track for countries with good access to vaccines, where strong recoveries are taking hold. And another for those countries that are still waiting and at risk of falling further behind.
The growth of infections in sub-Saharan Africa is now the fastest in the world, with an explosive trajectory that is outpacing the record set in the second wave. At this pace, this new wave will likely surpass previous peaks in a matter of days—and in some countries, infections are already more than double, or even triple, their January peaks. The latest (delta) variant—reportedly 60 percent more transmissible than earlier variants—has been detected in 14 countries.
When the pandemic first hit, quick action by policymakers helped prevent infection rates seen elsewhere around the world. But it pushed already strained local health systems to the breaking point. Only six months after the initial crisis, the region experienced a second wave that swiftly outpaced the scale and speed of the first. Now, another six months on, sub-Saharan Africa faces its third devastating wave.
The only way for the region to break free from this vicious pandemic cycle is to swiftly implement a widespread vaccination program. The sheer speed of this third wave highlights the difficulty policymakers in sub‑Saharan Africa face in heading off a crisis once it gets under way. In Namibia, for example, new cases reached the previous January peak within only two weeks, and tripled another two weeks later. For many countries, by the time a new surge is identified, it may already be too late.
And the options employed during previous waves may no longer be feasible. The re-imposition of containment measures would likely come at too high an economic and social cost, and is simply unsustainable—and unenforceable—over a prolonged period.
Looking back, most sub-Saharan African countries entered the second wave in a more difficult economic position than the first, with shrinking fiscal resources to protect the vulnerable, additional millions thrown into poverty, and depleted household balance sheets. While some countries have taken steps to improve preparedness, unfortunately, very few have had sufficient resources—or time—to strengthen public health systems.
And, now, the scale of the current wave is once again threatening to overwhelm local health systems. News reports across the region point to overwhelmed hospitals. The sick are dying while waiting for a bed. Non-emergency surgeries have been canceled to preserve space for COVID-19 patients. And military hospitals have been opened for civilian use. Oxygen has become a key constraint, with supply already failing to keep up with the demand for critically-ill patients. The region’s scarce health workers continue to be at risk. The vaccine rollout in sub-Saharan Africa remains the slowest in the world. Less than 1 adult in every hundred is fully vaccinated, compared to an average of over 30 in more advanced economies. This means even most essential frontline workers continue to work unprotected. In this context, some of the world’s more fortunate countries have stockpiled enough vaccines to cover their populations many times over.
Without significant, upfront, international assistance—and without an effective region-wide vaccination effort—the near-term future of sub-Saharan Africa will be one of repeated waves of infection, which will exact an ever-increasing toll on the lives and livelihoods of the region’s most vulnerable, while also paralyzing investment, productivity, and growth. In short, without help the region risks being left further and further behind.
And the longer the pandemic is left to ravage Africa, the more likely it is that ever more dangerous variants of the disease will emerge. Vaccination is not simply an issue of local lives and livelihoods. It is also a global public good. For every country—everywhere—the most durable vaccine effort is one that covers everyone, in every country.
A Guest Editorial