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As I See It: Japan must work at eliminating worldwide vaccine disparities to end pandemic

A man receives the coronavirus vaccine in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 30, 2021. (Mainichi/Mitsuyoshi Hirano)

JOHANNESBURG (Mainichi) -- The coronavirus's omicron variant has spread worldwide at a furious pace. About 30% of the population here in South Africa is fully vaccinated, while only about 10% of all of Africa has. As long as disparities in the world's vaccination rates persist, mutant coronavirus strains can continue to arise where rates are low, and spread across the world. Japan should seriously work toward a fundamental solution to eliminate disparities.

    After the delta variant that spread like wildfire reached its peak in July 2021, newly confirmed coronavirus cases in South Africa continued to decrease. By November that year, the numbers were as low as when the pandemic began in April 2020. Once I got my second vaccine shot in late August, I also could do reports outside and meet people without concern.

    But everything changed in late November 2021 with reports of the omicron variant's discovery. Infections increased at several times the pace of the delta variant. Omicron reportedly causes fewer severe cases and deaths than previous variants, but no one knows what kind of mutant strains the future could hold.

    As of the end of 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO)'s COVAX initiative for equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines has only managed to deliver some 800 million doses -- less than half the initially planned amount -- to poor countries. Impoverished nations are forced to vie for vaccines on an unlevel playing field. While advanced countries with financial power rush to give their third shots, many people in poor countries have yet to get even their first.

    In addition, African countries have surplus vaccines because they can't administer what limited supplies they receive. Shots donated from abroad come on unfixed schedules that make setting up efficient vaccinations plans difficult. Many countries also lack freezing and refrigerating equipment and transportation networks. When reporting in the slums of Johannesburg, I learned many people did not even have enough money to pay the bus fare to the vaccination site -- the equivalent of a few hundred yen (about $1.80 to $3.50).

    Another serious problem is rumors that vaccines are harmful. A certain level of vaccine hesitancy exists worldwide, which conflicts with countries' official positions of wanting their people to be vaccinated. But I feel that especially in Africa, people's level of trust in their governments is far lower than in Japan. It is not uncommon for leaders to rule with an iron fist, or for serious corruption to be taking place. Some governments barely function because of conflict. There is deep-rooted thinking that not everything the government says is to be taken at face value. It has also affected attitudes to vaccinations.

    The idea that "Africans don't need the coronavirus vaccine," however, is overly simplistic. Around 230,000 have died from COVID-19 across the continent. Given the meager state of testing and medical systems, the actual number is quite likely higher. To end the pandemic globally, the international community must provide developing countries with more vaccination assistance. Just supplying vaccines is insufficient; each country requires finely tuned support in storage, transport, vaccination and awareness-raising.

    The Japanese government announced it would donate 60 million vaccine doses to developing countries, and so far delivered about half of them. Why not swiftly deliver on the rest of the promise, and if possible increase the amount it supplies to countries needing the vaccine? Even before the pandemic, Japan had been aiding Uganda and elsewhere with vaccine storage and distribution networks. I would like to see Japan not just conduct emergency assistance, but reconfirm the importance of long-term, steady support, and put further efforts into that.

    (Japanese original by Mitsuyoshi Hirano, Johannesburg Bureau)

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