Retired teacher Tavaguma Zipiti remembers how he mocked his friends when they rushed to the queues to get vaccinated. He was convinced that the Chinese-made doses in Zimbabwe were too risky to take.
But then COVID-19 swept through his family. His wife, his son and his daughter-in-law – all grew sick and died. He saw many others dying. So he joined the vaccination rush. “I desperately need the vaccine,” he said recently as he stood in a winding 300-metre queue outside a hospital in Harare. “I’m afraid now.”
As deaths and illnesses escalate, Zimbabweans are increasingly frantic to get vaccinated. But the lineups are growing longer, the wait can be exhausting and many people are turned away. Some say they are resorting to unofficial methods to jump the queues: bribes or political connections. Others pay hefty fees at private clinics to get faster access.
“I was here at 4 a.m.,” said 26-year-old Tracy Nechavava, one of 300 people waiting for vaccination at Parirenyatwa General Hospital in Harare. “Now it’s after 1 p.m., and I haven’t received the jab yet. Some are saying the vaccine isn’t even here yet. I’m tired, but I have no choice. I need the vaccine, because people are dying.”
Eight months after vaccines arrived in wealthy countries, the global vaccine shortage is persisting. While most people in rich countries have received at least one dose of vaccine by now, lower-income countries still have severe shortages. Only 4 per cent of Africans have received any vaccine, even as the pandemic surges into a third or fourth wave in many countries on the continent.
And now there’s a new threat to the global supply: booster shots. A number of wealthy countries are securing doses for potential third shots, despite unclear evidence on whether they are needed. The race to acquire booster-shot contracts is damaging the desperately needed supply for poorer countries.
The World Health Organization is calling for a moratorium on all booster shots until the end of September at least, so that poorer countries can reach the minimum goal of a 10-per-cent vaccination rate.
“Even while hundreds of millions of people are still waiting for their first dose, some rich countries are moving towards booster doses,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing on Wednesday.
“We cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected,” he said.
Last week, Israel became the first country to begin administering a third vaccine dose, offering the booster to people over the age of 60. Germany, meanwhile, has announced it will offer Pfizer and Moderna booster shots in September to older people and other vulnerable groups, and to anyone vaccinated with the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are considered less protective. Several other European countries are also planning to offer booster shots.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in April that the government has secured an agreement with Pfizer for 35 million booster shots next year and 30 million the year after. And Quebec has offered a third shot of Pfizer or Moderna to anyone travelling to a country where the Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccine is not accepted in entry requirements.
On average, Dr. Tedros said, high-income countries have administered almost 100 doses for every 100 people – twice as many as in May. But low-income countries have been able to administer only 1.5 doses for every 100 people because of the supply crisis.
“We need an urgent reversal,” Dr. Tedros told the media briefing on Wednesday.
For Zimbabweans and other Africans, the notion of a booster shot is a remote dream. Most are struggling to get even one jab of a COVID-19 vaccine. “Citizens bear the brunt of the shortages across vaccination centres in the country,” the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute said in a recent report on the situation.
Zimbabwe has one of the highest vaccination rates in Africa, but even here only 5 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, primarily with Chinese vaccines.
“If I don’t get vaccinated today, I’m giving up,” said Thembani Chin’ombe, a 57-year-old man in the crowded queue at Parirenyatwa hospital in Harare.
On two earlier days, he had joined the vaccine queue without success. “This is the third time I’m facing this frustration,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I have no money to bribe the nurses to let me jump the queue, as I’ve seen many others doing.”
Faced with the huge lines, many Zimbabweans are using any possible trick to get a vaccine. One man, Kundai Njovo, said he gave five U.S. dollars to a nurse so that he could bypass the queue. “I’m busy, I can’t wait longer,” he said.
Another man, Tererai Zizhou, said he skipped the line by showing a nurse his membership card in Zimbabwe’s ruling party, ZANU-PF. “If people stranded in these queues had ZANU-PF cards, they would face no problems,” he said. “You support ZANU-PF, you gain access to everything.”
The vaccine shortage has created a two-tier system in Zimbabwe. Those with money have the privilege of faster service. At private clinics in affluent suburbs of Harare, people are paying US$40 to get the jab with only a short wait.
“It’s better than waiting forever at public hospitals,” Tobias Hamandishe, a private-school tutor, said as he visited a private clinic in the Mount Pleasant suburb. “It’s much faster here.”
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