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'Until Everyone Is Safe, No One Is Safe': Africa Awaits The COVID-19 Vaccine

A volunteer receives a shot as part of a COVID-19 vaccine trial at Soweto's Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 30, 2020.
Jerome Delay
A volunteer receives a shot as part of a COVID-19 vaccine trial at Soweto's Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 30, 2020.

As slow as the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has been in the United States, some estimates say billions of people around the world won't be vaccinated for COVID-19 until 2022 or 2023.

Bloomberg has been publishing a map that shows the level of vaccine distribution in different countries and virtually the entire continent of Africa — more than 50 nations — is blank.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and former president of Liberia, says much of Africa may be left out until next year.

Sirleaf recalls the Ebola outbreak, which hit her country, among others, in West Africa in 2015. Last year, she was asked to co-chair a review of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. And, in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, she says Africa is in danger of being left behind.

"In Africa, we don't have the resources. It's as simple as that," Sirleaf says "Unless vaccine is seen as a free good on the basis that until everyone is safe, no one is safe — when it's seen in that context, then perhaps the wealthier nations of the world will come up with a formula that says, how can we share the vaccine with those countries that are under resourced?"

Interview Highlights

Vaccination at this speed, on this scale is unprecedented. And even the United States has discovered logistical problems. It's very hard to get millions of doses to millions of people in a very short time. Are there even greater logistical challenges in parts of Africa?

We will face logistical challenges, no doubt. But I'd like to point out the case of Ebola. When Africa put up a platform to ensure that the medications and the responses to Ebola were made available through support of African countries, that this platform was used to ensure equitable distribution among those African countries in need. Of course, there were limited countries at that time because Ebola affected the three neighboring countries in West Africa. So maybe distribution was easier as our population in those countries are much smaller than others. It would be more complicated if you have all of African countries.

We should recall that Ebola was an extreme stress on the societies of a number of countries. What were some of the ways that you learned to address public anxiety and to get genuine medical care to people?

Well, the first thing you need [is] to get proper information, reliable information on the state of the disease so that proper communication is given to citizens. So that they don't have to guess, they don't have to speculate as to the extent of the effect of the disease. And one has to have coordination. You can't have different entities involved in the health sector or involved in the financial sector. That's the only way you can win the confidence of citizens to ensure that even if you have the means to address it, that they take the medication or they adhere to the protocol, whether it's a mask or whether it's social distancing. And of course, in a case of Ebola, again, strong partnerships because there, too, the three affected countries did not have the resources to get the medication and to get the kind of support that was necessary. But they had good partners.

In the U.S., there are a lot of people who have expressed skepticism about masking and social distancing. They've declined to participate. And there's also a very widespread skepticism of vaccines. Does that all sound familiar to you?

Yes, it does. I mean, Liberia faced the same thing in the early days of Ebola, but we were able to overcome it through strong government action. And leaders have to be able to convey this, the severity of this disease to their lives and to their livelihoods in very clear terms with very clear action and strong commitment not only to formulate those measures, but to find a means to ensure their citizens understand and are willing to comply for their own safety.

Were you surprised that this virus got out of control in a way that Ebola did not?

Yes, because of the failure to carry out the measures to address the virus. I must say, in the case of Ebola, I said initially we face the same problem — the problem of confidence that people who thought maybe this was, you know, somebody trying to limit their ability to move about, their rights to freedom. Those are the kinds of concerns that citizens have. But it's up to leaders to address those fears and those concerns and to make sure that they overcome them.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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