Vaccines could prevent the exploitation of Africans

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Covid-19 rapid test kits. Photo: IANS

There have been suggestions within various scientific communities that the African region could be the next epicentre of the coronavirus. For instance, scientists at Imperial College, London, recently predicted that not less than 300000 coronavirus deaths could be recorded in Africa in the coming weeks if preventive measures are not put in place. 

Such predictions, although in some cases backed by scientific models, have the potential to cause panic and fear in the African population. An important corollary of the fear that the negative sentiment could elicit is its ability to make the currently suspicious Africans more receptive to mass testing of new vaccines and medications. 

This is not to insinuate that such talk could be laced with ill intentions. However, some scientists have recently made the point that if a vaccine were to be developed, it would initially target the most vulnerable populations of the world, a euphemism commonly referring to poor countries, particularly those in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

This background is important in understanding my arguments below. While most discussions have centred on Africa’s vulnerability to the virus, the possible ways by which the region could benefit from the pandemic have not been adequately explored. 

There are many ways by which Africa could benefit from the outbreak of the coronavirus. In 1977, John Dunning identified four reasons why business enterprises venture abroad, namely, to seek natural resources, to seek a market, to seek strategic assets and to seek greater efficiency. 

These four reasons arise from the desire of businesses to exploit their ownership, internalisation and location advantages in order to remain competitive in their business activities. This theoretical appreciation of business behaviour presents Africa with a lens through which it could conceive ways to benefit from the coronavirus outbreak.  

This is how. Consider medical research institutions as business units manufacturing products (such as medication and vaccines) that need to be marketed to consumers – the sick and those who would like to boost their immunity to various diseases. 

Therefore, research institutions currently racing against time to develop coronavirus vaccines will need a market for their products, when they are finally licensed. They will initially need to test the products before they can be submitted to the regulatory agencies for licensing. 

Because it has a substantial vulnerable population, Africa is a natural place to test and to begin rolling out newly-developed vaccines. Therefore, as pointed out in the introduction, it is not unlikely that if a Covid-19 vaccine were developed, it’s testing and rollout could begin in Africa.  

Africa could exploit its vulnerable-population-appeal to researchers by inviting international medical research organisations to set up shop in Africa as a condition for using Africa’s huge population as a test laboratory and as a market for their vaccine innovations. 
Locating such institutions in Africa will present several advantages to the region. 

First, Africa is littered with medical research facilities that are not adequately funded and therefore currently lacking in an effective research capacity. The conditional inflow of foreign direct investment by international researchers would boost Africa’s medical research capacity, making it better equipped for possible future disease outbreaks of this nature. 

Second, scientific innovations emanating from the newly equipped state-of-the-art facilities would be patented, wholly or partially, by the host African countries (this must be a condition for their acceptance into the country). Such patents will channel back some of the proceeds from the sale of such vaccines to Africa. 

Third, Africa would have some meaningful oversight of the quality of vaccines developed in its facilities, and would have a say about necessary safety measures to protect its population from potential harm; this would help to mitigate the phobia for vaccines currently permeating the African society (amidst frightening past real and current conspiratorial tales of exploitation of Africans in circumstances such as this). 

Domesticating the production of coronavirus vaccines and medication would also partially address the much-desired investments in health infrastructure in African host countries. This introduces the second major way by which the coronavirus outbreak could benefit Africa. 

If the outbreak has achieved anything, it has exposed the gross underinvestment in health infrastructure worldwide. On this, Sub-Saharan Africa is probably most affected as some recent studies have documented poor or absolute lack of critical healthcare infrastructure in the region. 

The universal application, in the world, of lockdowns as a means to manage the spread of the virus, has technically barred African politicians, known for their penchant for foreign medical travel, from flying out for medical care, forcing them to share poorly-equipped domestic medical facilities with the general population. 

This may incentivise the thoughtful ones in their ranks to re-examine their countries’ investment in healthcare infrastructure. The coronavirus, therefore, presents Africa with a unique opportunity to boost investment in its social infrastructure, particularly health, water and sanitation, which are critical in managing the outbreak. 

Such investments are required urgently to increase capacity in preparedness for the doomsday forecasts mentioned at the beginning of this commentary. For instance, some countries in Africa have recently converted sports stadia into makeshift hospitals as a temporary measure. 

Increased health infrastructure investment, even if temporary in nature, may in the short-term help create employment opportunities and, in turn, temporarily provide a lifeline to day-wage earners who have lost their jobs to national lockdowns and curfews. 
In the long-term, increased social infrastructure investment will improve Africa’s below-average public infrastructure endowment and boost economic development: social infrastructure has been demonstrated to have a positive relationship with economic growth. 

The third way by which Africa could benefit from the pandemic is in food production. Lockdowns in many countries have endangered agricultural production and are expected to diminish the capacity of the world, already overburdened by conflict, to respond to humanitarian emergencies. 

Therefore, African governments must urgently put in place strategies for the national response to food shortages that will surely follow the economic disruptions occasioned by the coronavirus lockdowns. 

A good starting point is an infrastructure for water reticulation, irrigation farming and pest control. Inasmuch as these infrastructures are needed urgently to respond to potential food shortages, once installed, they will serve the food needs of the region for the long term. 

Investments in social infrastructure must be financed. Yet, traditional sources of infrastructure finance, such as external debt, will not be a feasible option during and shortly after Covid-19. This is because the world will be in recession and financial markets short of liquidity as every nation rushes to the debt market to finance their economic stimulus or resuscitation programs. 

This leaves Africa with one source of funding: mobilisation of domestic resources. However, since most African countries are currently in economic lockdowns, shrinking economies will diminish tax revenues, making them insufficient to finance heavy infrastructure outlays. So, which resources will be available to Africa domestically? This would be the fourth benefit to Africa of the coronavirus. 

Firstly, African leaders who are conscientious would have to intensify efforts to curb and repatriate illicit financial outflows and to stem corruption. Evidence suggests that Africa lost over USD 1.3 trillion between 1980 and 2018 in illicit financial outflows while receiving only about USD 2 trillion in foreign direct investments during the same period. 

Secondly, there are already efforts and discussions to mitigate the effects of external debt shocks on Africa’s economies. Governments could do more by negotiating debt workouts, for instance, to lengthen repayment periods or to suspend interest payments for several months. 

This will allow many African countries, currently heavily burdened by debt, to re-channel their resources tied up in debt servicing to social infrastructure investment. 

Odongo is an associate professor in Finance at the University of the Witwatersrand.