COVID-19: Vaccination paradox

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Coronavirus has exhibited confounding tendencies and so generated much controversy. So, it’s not surprising that the vaccines against it have given rise to paradoxes and controversies as well. The virus kills some people with frightening efficiency, yet it leaves others unaware that they have been infected. In between are infected people who survived only because of the miracle of modern medicine and those who get over mild symptoms with little help.

It’s not surprising that even after millions of deaths worldwide, there are people who still believe coronavirus is a hoax or not worse than the common cold. And then there are the conspiracy theorists who say that it is the product of a deep state that is intent on depopulating the world. Never mind that the virus has been more devastating in the most privileged countries.

Not surprisingly, even before the first vaccines rolled off the production line, they too were assailed by claims of malevolent intent. Among the conspiracy theories was that the vaccines were targeting Africans. A video posted on social media by a South African gave the skepticism its most cynical expression: “My method of testing if a vaccine is okay or not … is if the comrades of the ANC start to steal the vaccine to help themselves in their own organisation. Then I would know the vaccine is genuine, (and that) truly I need a vaccine.”

Meanwhile, the advanced countries are scrambling to get as many doses as possible for their own people. One of President Joe Biden’s first initiatives on assuming office, for example, was to ramp up production of the vaccines and the purchase an additional 200 million doses. That would boost America’s purchase from 400 million to 600 million.

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The scramble and the skepticism are paradoxical enough. Yet the paradox deepens further with the concern of moral philosophers that the poorer countries are unconscionably being left out. So, while advocates for Africa plead for affordable vaccines for the continent, a sizable number of Africans say they don’t want it.

Africans are not alone. The paradox exists also within the developed countries. In North America, Europe and elsewhere, there is a sizable number of vaccine-phobic and skeptics. In one US hospital, for example, as many as half of the nursing staff reportedly refused to be vaccinated. For some, it’s a matter of waiting to see whether their colleagues who got vaccinated will drop dead.

Meanwhile, the dominant storyline about the vaccine is that it is not being administered fast enough. In many locales, there is insufficient supply. In others, there is a logjam in administering the vaccines. Though vaccinations require pre-registration and appointment, people still line up in some places for distances as long as a soccer field. So, Biden is not just purchasing more vaccines, he is seeking to dramatically improve the logistics of their distribution and use.

So, despite the large number of people who are shunning the vaccines, the supply remains far behind the demand. Governments around the world are giving priorities to people who most urgently need to be vaccinated: healthcare workers, the aged, and the infirm. Then come law enforcement people, teachers and others who provide service to the public. Some occupational groups are advocating to be prioritised.

The most optimistic estimate is that it would take up to June before all Americans who want to be vaccinated will be vaccinated. Less optimistic projections put the time line at year end and beyond. So, if it takes that long to vaccinate Americans, how much longer will it take to vaccinate Nigerians?

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The good news for those who want to be vaccinated is that the options and pace of production has been increasing. Since Pfizer announced its breakthrough early in November, several other pharmaceuticals have followed suit — usually with notable improvements. Pfizer’s vaccine requires refrigeration at temperatures that only specialised refrigerators can provide. That’s a huge impediment for its use. Moderna announced its own vaccine soon after, with the same level of protection but without the freezing requirement. Now Johnson and Johnson is soon to introduce a vaccine that is an improvement over Pfizer’s and Moderna’s: it doesn’t require a second dose or booster shot.

Meanwhile, a number of countries have developed or are developing their own vaccines, among them the UK, China, Russia, and India. The best prospects for affordable vaccines in Africa will be those from some of these countries. While Pfizer and Moderna are busy trying to keep up with orders from North American and Europe, China, Russia and India are undertaking “vaccine diplomacy” by providing some of theirs to the have-not countries. Though those vaccines are not of the same level of efficacy as Pfizer’s and Moderna’s (95 per cent), they are deemed effective enough.

Unraveling the paradox

Back to the matter of distrust, why are many people averse to being vaccinated? Some of the reasons are figments of people’s imagination, some are farfetched conjectures, and others are sensible hesitancy.

The speed with which these vaccines are being developed, for example, is a sensible concern. Vaccines usually take years to develop to ensure not just their efficacy but their long-term safety. In contrast, the coronavirus vaccines have been developed within months. The matter of speed can readily be disposed of, however. We may liken the usual research to using a typewriter to typeset a book while the coronavirus researchers used a laptop. Advancements in genetic research have made it so much easier to pinpoint the essence of viruses and to target them.

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The concern about long-term consequences is harder to dispel. While research can provide a reasonable degree of assurance, there can’t be certainty until considerable time has elapsed. But then, coronavirus can be deadly. And even those who contract it without symptoms don’t know the long-term impact on their health.

Moreover, some experts, including Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel, are predicting that coronavirus is here to stay. “I believe SARS-Cov-2 is going to stay with humans forever,” Bancel has been quoted as saying. “We’re going to have to have boosts adapted to a virus, like we have for flu. It’s the same thing, they are both mRNA viruses, and we’re going to have to live with it forever.”

To make matters worse, research so far shows that those who have already contracted the virus may be immune to it for not much longer than six months. A second infection might cause much more problems. So, whatever the inhibitions, being vaccinated may well be our best bet.

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Ibelema’s latest book, Cultural Chauvinism: Intercultural Communication and the Politics of Superiority, is due for release on Thursday by Routledge (London/New York).

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