Since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic a year ago, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), comprising 16 countries in the sub-region, has taken a reasonably active role in providing information and guidance to states on preventing the rapid spread of the deadly virus.
However, the regional bloc has been almost completely silent on states’ human rights obligations during the pandemic, particularly in relation to access to the Covid-19 vaccine. So far its only significant statement on vaccines has come from SADC’s current chair, President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique. On 29 January, he urged the bloc’s ministers of health to establish a strong regional strategy of pooling resources together to urgently acquire the vaccine to be distributed among the region’s inhabitants, setting priorities in accordance with the level of risk. However, he made no reference at all to human rights or the legal obligations mandating them to do this.
While Nyusi’s statement is to be lauded, equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines is a human right to which all people in Southern Africa are entitled, including under the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which has been ratified by all SADC’s member states, and the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In addition, SADC’s founding treaty sets combating deadly and communicable diseases as one of its founding objectives. In compliance with international law and standards, the SADC health protocol requires Southern African governments to cooperate in addressing health problems and challenges facing them through “effective regional collaboration and mutual support”.
Despite these clear obligations and the vital coordinating role that SADC could and should play, it has so far failed to take the leadership on vaccines that is so urgently needed – particularly in a region beset by inequality and, in some places, resistance to the use of Covid-19 vaccines listed by WHO for emergency use.
For example, two SADC states, Tanzania and Madagascar, have indicated at time of writing that they most likely will not be securing vaccines for their people at all – a stance that, if implemented, would certainly lead to widespread violations of the rights to health and to life. In both countries, more generally government messaging and rhetoric has veered towards Covid-19 denialism and the public spreading of scientifically inaccurate information. The same is true in Eswatini where, despite the death of Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini due to Covid-19, King Mswati III, without any scientific evidence, recently begun touting a Taiwanese “antiviral drug” as a cure for the virus.
In Zimbabwe, although the government has now received vaccines, it has had to be compelled through litigation to provide and disseminate public information on Covid-19. Further litigation brought by a Zimbabwean civil society organisation to demand more information about the government’s capacity and planning for vaccine acquisition and distribution is pending. The government’s efforts have been sluggish and secretive, compelling civil society groups to call on the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to intervene. More alarmingly, it appears that Zimbabwe intends to unlawfully force people to take the vaccine, taking away their right to choose whether they want it or not. As the WHO has made clear, mandatory vaccination is not the answer to vaccine skepticism and reluctance – instead, governments need to focus on accessible public information campaigns and a fair and transparent prioritisation process to build trust and awareness.
Many other countries in the region have yet to even publish their vaccination roll-out plans and strategies for public scrutiny. Despite the urgency, SADC has also failed to press its member states on this as well, including through much-needed public campaign strategies focusing on vaccine access as a human rights imperative.
Against this backdrop, we can expect the transmission of Covid-19 to continue as long as there is a lack of both national vaccine roll-out plans and regional coordination in place with SADC failing to ensure that human rights are at the centre of any vaccination drive.
Importantly, SADC must speak in a clear voice and caution its member states from limiting vaccine access to their citizens, which countries such as Botswana and Namibia have implied they will do. SADC must also voice its opposition to vaccines being refused to people from specific groups, such as undocumented migrants, on the basis of the absence of documentation, something South Africa has not yet fully clarified how it will avoid.
The exclusion of migrants, whatever their status, is not only a violation of their human rights but it also undermines efforts to eradicate Covid-19 across the region. SADC itself acknowledges that “vaccines only realize their true power when they are deployed to protect the poorest and most vulnerable”. The millions with irregular or undocumented status are among the most marginalised in our region, and must not be left behind.
Furthermore, SADC must do more to ensure that member states are held accountable to their populations. It is well documented that countries in the Global South, including those in Southern Africa, are struggling to secure supplies of vaccines amid stockpiling by richer countries. Despite this injustice, too few SADC states have given their support to global entities to ensure equitable vaccine access, such as the WHO’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) – which is only endorsed in Southern Africa by Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
SADC needs to replace its silence with determined and coordinated action towards the unshakeable purpose of ensuring equitable vaccine access for all people living in Southern Africa. Time is short and our people are dying. It had better act fast.