The suspicions about the Chinese coronavirus vaccines have added yet another complication to the vaccination challenges in Africa
Melisa Hungoidza keeps changing her mind about the Chinese vaccine.
Three times she has visited the COVID-19 vaccination centre at Wilkins Hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Three times she has decided to walk away without a jab.
“I told myself I’d have to wait to see if other health workers join the vaccination, but I saw nobody,” the 34-year-old nurse’s aide said. “I’m afraid, because nothing much was said to us as health workers about the side effects of the Sinopharm vaccine.”
Zimbabwe was one of the first African countries to receive vaccines for the virus, thanks to a donation from China five weeks ago. Today it has received 600,000 doses of two Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac. Yet it has managed to administer fewer than 59,000 of those doses so far, largely because of a lack of enthusiasm from the Zimbabwean people.
The vaccines are free, there are usually no age or occupation restrictions and the queues are often relatively short. It took only 15 minutes for people to be vaccinated at Wilkins Hospital on Friday. Yet people are still reluctant to take the jab.
Analysts say the slow acceptance of the Chinese vaccines in Zimbabwe is largely owing to a mistrust of the country’s authoritarian government, a lack of a concerted campaign to educate people about the benefits of vaccination and a widespread suspicion of corruption in China’s deals with the Zimbabwean government.
“It shows that millions of people here have no trust in the Chinese vaccine,” said Claris Madhuku, an activist who heads the Platform for Youth Development, a Zimbabwean civil society organization.
“People question China’s sincerity in donating the doses to Zimbabwe,” he told The Globe and Mail. “They don’t trust the deals between China and Zimbabwe at the government level because they associate it with lots of corruption.”
Some people even believe that Chinese companies have bribed the Zimbabwean government to accept the vaccines for their own financial interests, he said.
The suspicions about the Chinese vaccines have added yet another complication to the vaccination challenges in Africa. The continent, with a population of about 1.3 billion people, has administered only about 7.7 million vaccine doses so far – the lowest number per capita of any region in the world.
The biggest obstacle is simply a lack of supply. “Africa urgently needs more COVID-19 vaccine supplies as deliveries begin to slow down and initial batches are nearly exhausted in some countries,” the Africa branch of the World Health Organization said in a statement on Thursday.
“A critical proportion of the population targeted in the initial phase of the vaccination campaign may remain unvaccinated for months to come, due to global supply constraints,” it said.
Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, noted that some wealthy countries are already beginning to vaccinate young and healthy people, while many African countries are still struggling to cover their high-risk groups, including front-line health workers.
“A slowdown in vaccine supply could prolong the painful journey to end this pandemic for millions of people in Africa,” she said.
But supply is not the only problem. Another issue is the reluctance of some African governments to accept the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca.
Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo both announced temporary suspensions of their use of AstraZeneca this month after a number of European governments questioned a possible link between the vaccine and rare blood clots.
South Africa, meanwhile, purchased 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca – but then refused to use it after a study found it ineffective in preventing mild and moderate illness from the new variant detected in South Africa. The government eventually sold the vaccines to other African countries, and it is now seeking to renegotiate its agreement with the COVAX supply program to get another vaccine instead of the AstraZeneca doses that it was due to receive.
The concerns about AstraZeneca are crucial because it is the main option provided by COVAX, the non-profit program that has become the major source of supply for most of the world’s poorest countries.
Aside from AstraZeneca and an extremely limited number of Pfizer doses, the only other vaccines available to most African countries are from Russia and China.
So far, 19 African countries have received deliveries of the two main Chinese vaccines. But as the Zimbabwe example illustrates, the Chinese vaccines might not solve the supply problems.
An online survey of the general public by Zimbabwe’s College of Public Health Physicians found that nearly half of respondents would refuse to take any COVID-19 vaccine or were uncertain about whether to take it.
The hesitancy was shown on March 18, when Zimbabwean Vice-President and Health Minister Constantino Chiwenga arrived at Wilkins Hospital to get his second dose of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. Journalists took photos of him and dutifully stood in line for their own vaccines. But when the powerful politician left the scene, many journalists and other people quietly slipped away from the queue.
Charity Mushonga, a 27-year-old fruit and vegetable seller, was one of the few who remained. “I am just giving it a try,” she said.
“I realized that few people were willing to be vaccinated, and I said to myself, ‘Let me take the chance.’ ”