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The OECS and the African Union partner to overcome vaccine challenges!

In a move of unparalleled cooperation and collaboration, the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission, working with a coalition of international organisations led by the Global Business Leadership Forum, convened a meeting on the areas of Vaccine Confidence/Equity in a bid to address the issues around hesitancy and disparities, that exist with vaccine allocation, primarily in Africa and the Caribbean.

The meeting was attended by members of the AfroChampions, – a Pan-African Initiative that aims to support the development of African multinationals to be able to boost the transformation of the continent; the Global Business Leadership Forum, – an organisation that connects Business Executives/Leaders from diverse businesses in different geographic locations globally through Business Forums, Seminars and Conferences; the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA); as well as a delegation from the OECS Commission.

At the political level, the meeting was joined by Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Hon. Gaston Browne who is the current Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and; Hon. Oliver Joseph of Grenada who represented the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Dr. Keith Mitchell.

The purpose of this meeting was two fold; to launch a global campaign to garner confidence in vaccines and to work with major global corporations to assist with donations of 100 million vaccines that would be allocated to the Caribbean and the African Union Member States.  The OECS  and the African Union have a long history of successful collaboration spanning climate action to economic debt relief and now COVID-19 vaccination challenges.

Image of Prime Minister Gaston Browne
Prime Minister Gaston Browne

Speaking on behalf of colleague Heads of Governments, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Hon. Gaston Browne, highlighted the cooperation and linkages which existed between Africa and the Caribbean and welcomed the opportunity to come together to advocate for global accessibility of vaccines. He stated, ‘Being unable to get our people vaccinated and to achieve population immunity in lockstep with the rest of the world means that we will be left behind and livelihoods will be destroyed.

The Prime Minister expressed concerns for what he termed as ‘the hoarding of vaccines by wealthy countries’ who had been ordering three to four times their size of vaccine populations.  He agreed that coming together to provide economies of scale that could negotiate with vaccine manufacturers would be effective in bringing about a change to the situation at this time in order to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines and to address the $9 trillion in economic losses as a result of the inequitable distribution of vaccine and vaccine availability.

Moderator Dr. Edem Adzogenu, former Secretary of the Organisation of African Unity and co-Chair of AfroChampions offered context from the African side with respect to harmonising discussions on testing, but also acquiring data on migration through the harmonisation of travel restrictions and using targeted digital platforms. The counsel of the Elders (Statesmen and Stateswomen) who had significantly contributed to advancements on the African continent were invited to provide advice to the meeting on the way forward and included; H.E Olusegun Obasanjo, Fmr. President of Nigeria and Patron of AfroChampions; H.E Hailemariam Desalegn, Fmr. Prime Minister of Ethiopia; and H.E Bibi Ameenah Gurion-Fakim 6th President of Mauritius and patron of AfroChampions.

H.E. Olusegun Obasango was confident that working together was important and could eliminate the issue of inequity. He stated,

‘If we go separately we will sink separately. It is only if we go together that we will be able swim together…we would be sidelined if we do not walk together.”
H.E. Dr Bibi Ameenah Gurib-Fakim added that a key issue that had been missing in the dialogue surrounding the pandemic was about treatments and cures. Her Excellency advised that ‘No one was safe until everyone was safe’.

Image of Dr. Keith Mitchell
Prime Minister of Grenada Rt Hon. Dr. Keith Mitchell

Additionally, she raised important patent issues; specifically the removal of patents to allow countries who have the capacity to produce the vaccines to do so., whilst H.E Hailemariam Desalegn was hopeful that the common voice of the Caribbean and Africa that was successful in climate change initiatives would also unlock the disinformation issues around vaccine hesitancy.

Commissioner for Economic Affairs and Trade in the African Union (AU), H.E. Albert Muchanga, advised that vaccination issues were exacerbated by export restrictions from countries, such as those in the European Union, which poses a challenge for the AU to get the 1.5 billion doses to vaccinate at least 800 million people to achieve population immunity.

Hon. Oliver Joseph, speaking on behalf of Prime Minister of Grenada Rt Hon. Dr. Keith Mitchell, noted the devastating impact the pandemic has had on the country’s economy and vaccine hesitancy which was largely fueled by vaccine politics attributing to the lack of confidence among the people. The tourism-dependent economy of the country which relied on St. George’s University for 25% of its GDP remained closed.

H. E. Elma Gene Isaac who spoke on behalf of Hon. Allen Chastanet, Prime Minister of Saint Lucia hoped the coalition could move just as quickly to provide information to counter the misinformation on social media just as quickly as it was spreading.  Secondly, the work of the joint efforts on the African Medical Supplies Platform which had started with CARICOM needed to be continued. The arrival of the Hurricane Season could potentially increase the threat of the pandemic without inoculation as people move to hurricane shelters. The inability to vaccine could also mean a delay in the reopening of the economy, which was already facing a GDP contraction of 20% for 2020.

Dr. Joy St. John, Executive Director of CARPHA, advised that because of vaccine hesitancy, CARPHA had launched a survey among its Member States to try to understand the concerns and to create a communications campaign to specifically address the issues. She noted with interest the ‘wait and see what is happening in other countries’ approach has impacted vaccine hesitancy rates. She expressed interest in being involved in clinical trials for treatments and vaccines. CARPHA was also very keen in finding out when the African Medical Supplies platform would be able to deliver to the Caribbean. The move by the Caribbean to join COVAX was to take advantage of the economies of scale but unfortunately, it had not been as swift nor as abundant as was required by the region.

The Way Forward

Nigel Salinas introduced the  ‘Do it for Tomorrow’ initiative – a full media customizable vaccine confident campaign inclusive of influencers, celebrities, video content and a website with a mobile application to share stories. This would be launched in the coming days. Part of an international campaign led by the private sector to increase vaccine confidence. As it relates to vaccine equity, he adv

ised that major corporations would be invited to donate to get at least 100 million vaccines for the Caribbean and Africa, with a plan to do a pilot project with the OECS.

Image of Dr. Didicus Jules
Dr. Didicus Jules

Having fully elaborated on the intentions of the coalition, Dr. Didacus Jules reaffirmed importantly the three components to the initiative, the vaccine confidence campaign; which would now see the beginning of the engagement of stakeholder governments and key partners as to the changes that would be needed; the vaccine equity issue and the use of the OECS as starting point, then the wider Caribbean as an example of the value and efficacy of population immunity and what this could mean for not only saving lives but also restarting livelihoods. He stated that the new complicating factor was the eruption of the volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for which a major campaign of USD100M was launched. The major focus of the campaign for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines would be the convergence of efforts into one major initiative that will address the issue of logistical arrival of support and donations to the island.

A key outcome of the meeting was to schedule a follow-up meeting using a steering committee to prepare a way forward on strategies and formal approaches to Heads of Governments in both the OECS and African Union.

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