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Home / Health & Science

Covid-19 jab: Will the poor have a fair shot?

By DOMINIC OMONDI | 1 month ago


Close-up Of Female Doctor Injecting Male Patient With Syringe To Collect Blood Sample. [Courtesy]

Perhaps one of the few times when the rich and poor find themselves equally and helplessly staring death in the face is during a war.

But if they are forewarned then most of the wealthy can build bunkers to hide or whisk their families out of the country before the invasion.

But, if they are stuck in the warzone, there is little they can do to shield themselves from the bombs or downed the fighter planes. This is left to the national army which is paid for by the public.

And the army will be defending both the rich and the poor who have paid for the service through taxes.

Economists describe services such as national defense as a public good - a commodity or service that is made available to all citizens.

Currently, Kenya is fighting an invisible enemy known as the coronavirus.

The disease’s fast-spreading nature has meant that people have to cooperate to have an army that will fight for all of them. 

As a result, the onus of protecting citizens is on the government which has implemented stringent measures, including quarantines, curfews, and social distancing to tame the spread of the disease.

The last wall of defense against Covid-19 is inoculating all the citizens.

To this end, the government has announced that it will enlist the help of private investors, igniting, once again, the debate on whether the fight against a pandemic should be left to a private business folk.

There are fears that those with deep pockets will jump the queue leaving millions of other Kenyans vulnerable, as private investors take the vaccine where there are hefty returns.

Even more worrying, to some people, is the possibility that business persons might cut corners in pursuit of profits by flouting safety standards such as the cold chain storage or acquiring sub-standard jabs.

The government insists this will be done under strict regulations, which might include imposing price controls.

“The government will see if some of the market buyers will be given authorisation, but they will be under close watch,” said Willis Akhwale, the chair of the Covid-19 vaccine advisory taskforce.

Covid-19 is not just a national crisis that requires national co-operation, it is also a global crisis that requires global co-operation.

However, when it comes to distribution or availability of the vaccine, cracks have already started to appear at both global and national levels.

Clinically counterproductive

Rich countries have been hoarding it, leaving people in poor countries — most of them in Africa — still exposed.

The World Health Organisation’s Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Gebhreyesus, in an Op-ed in the Foreign Policy magazine, talked of a creeping vaccine nationalism.

He noted that the rich countries with 16 per cent of the world population had already bought 60 per cent of the world’s vaccine supply.

“Vaccine nationalism is not only morally indefensible. It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive,” said Tedros.

Vaccine equity, said the WHO chief, will protect people everywhere, protect the existing shots from new vaccine-resistant variants and strengthen the international community’s ability to stop Covid-19.

Market-driven mechanisms alone, he added, are insufficient to achieve the goal of stopping the pandemic by achieving herd immunity with vaccines.

At the national level, there are fears that the rich might have secretly ordered for themselves Covid-19 vaccine.

An article in Wall Street Journal noted that even before the country got its own supply, the inner circle of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni had acquired for themselves the Covid-19 vaccine.

The government denied the reports.

But this is what might happen when you allow private investors to import essential goods as vaccines without better aligning their private profit with the social goal of eradicating the pandemic.

Some experts fear that this is just a continuation of a policy of abdication by the government in the face of a deadly virus that has not only threatened lives but also disrupted economic activities.

From masks to testing to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), citizens seem to have been left on their own.

Even in schools, where the State promised to provide masks, it is the parents who are paying for them.

Dr Nelson Gitonga, a health economist argues that whereas for a long time the private sector played a critical role in the supply of vaccines by complementing the government, it needs to be a dominant player in the present case.

“For public issues such as health emergencies, it is the job of the government to step in.

"The private sector should only play a complementary or supplementary role,” said Gitonga.

Administrative costs

More critical than even controlling the price, said Gitonga, is the need to ensure safety standards by, for example, ensuring the cold chain storage all the way to the hospital and from the hospital to the patient is maintained.

It is true that, unlike the government with its bureaucracy, the private sector is fast and efficient.

It is understandable why the government has increasingly been delegating some of its sacred duties to the private sector.

But ensuring that every Kenyan has access to safe vaccines so that the society and economy can return to normal, analysts say, is a role that the government cannot run away from. It is the only reason the State has been allowed to borrow despite running out of fiscal space.

The government might leverage the private sector’s speed and efficiency, particularly its existing distribution channel. 

It can import all the vaccines and then allocate certain amounts to the private sector which will then dispense them.

This way, the private sector players will not charge for the vaccine, only their labour and administrative costs.

With this method, not only will everyone get the vaccine, but the public will also be assured of safety.

The second route involves allowing the private sector players themselves to import the vaccine.

Prof XN Iraki, a business lecturer at the University of Nairobi says the private sector is usually more efficient than the public sector and should play a bigger role.

“We have no time to waste in delivering the vaccines. Israel has shown we can defeat Covid-19," he said.


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