What's Behind China's COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign in Africa?

Beijing's burgeoning ties with African countries, accelerating during the era of so-called vaccine nationalism, are raising questions about its motives

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Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines arriving in Harare, Zimbabwe, last week.
Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines arriving in Harare, Zimbabwe, last week. Beijing is dispensing the vaccines to all takers and promising to be the solution to the problem for the entire global south.Credit: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Adam Rotbard
Adam Rotbard

In March 2020, a Nigerian citizen was hospitalized in Guangzhou, the sprawling Chinese city north of Hong Kong. The Nigerian, a businessman who had been infected with the coronavirus in China, tried to escape from quarantine in the hospital. He struck a nurse, and photographs of her bruised face were quickly posted online. Reports that week spoke of four other Nigerians living in the city – home to Asia's largest African migrant population, numbering some 100,000 – who had been infected in a local restaurant serving Nigerian cuisine. The proprietor was Chinese, but that didn’t prevent a wave of xenophobia from raging through the city. Nor did it stop the authorities from acting vigorously and with ruthless efficiency vis-a-vis the local Nigerian-dominated African community, increasing numbers of whom tested positively for COVID-19 at the time.

For example, photographs began to appear in the social media of Nigerians being evicted from apartments and hotels, sleeping outdoors in the rain. In April, a Nigerian businessman, Frank Nnabugwu, 30, who had been living in Guangzhou for a year at the time, told The Guardian that he was barred from re-entering his rented apartment after spending two weeks in quarantine. “The security guards said to us: ‘No foreigners are allowed.’ I was upset, very upset. I slept on the street.” With the help of the police, a hotel was found that agreed to rent Nnabugwu a room.

“We use the receptionist to order food,” Nnabugwu said. “If they [food delivery companies] know it is a foreigner ordering food they will not come. You cannot buy anything in a shop; if you go in they will cover their face and chase you out.”

Around the same time, McDonald’s was compelled to apologize when a photo was published in the social media of a notice posted in a branch of the restaurant in the city stating, in English: “We’ve been informed that from now on black people are not allowed to enter the restaurant.”

And around the same time, in April 2020, a cartoon appeared in a WeChat post in Chinese with the caption, “An illustrated handbook on how to sort foreign trash.” The image shows a Chinese man wearing coronavirus protective gear and holding a truncheon, overseeing a worker who is dragging a young man of color toward a recycling bin.

In response, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory warning African Americans not to travel to Guangzhou as incidents involving Africans and cases of COVID-19 surged.

In Africa, too, officials from Nigeria and other countries used the diplomatic crisis brewing in China to express public protest. The Nigerian consul in Guangzhou was photographed physically confronting authorities there about the treatment of his compatriots; members of the Nigerian parliament met with the Chinese ambassador; and other countries on the continent, as well as the African Union, issued statements slamming the mistreatment of and discrimination against Africans.

The fact that the expressions of xenophobia and racism broke out about the same time as the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States undermined one of the key messages China has been trying to promote and inculcate in Africa in the past few years. Its gist is that China is Africa’s “half-sister” and that like African countries, it too has suffered at the hands of European imperialism; as such, China is the antithesis of the United States, it is a country where discrimination against racial minorities and Blacks does not exist.

Not long afterward, Beijing had to address another episode, one with a cost in human life. The venue this time was Lusaka, the capital of Zambia and the country’s largest city. On May 24, 2020 three Zambian men strode into a Chinese-owned textile factory there and for 17 minutes assaulted and beat to death three Chinese nationals – the wife of the factory owner and two male workers. The assailants dragged the bodies outside, set them afire and then looted the factory. In the days leading up to the incident, local politicians had exploited a wave of anti-Chinese feeling to reap political capital, protesting the conditions of modern slave labor under which the Chinese bosses employ the Zambians. Clips posted on social media documented the closure of a store that sold products with labels in Chinese instead of English, as required by law.

The wave of China hatred was fed by Zambia’s economic problems in coping with the coronavirus – and by the fact that 44 percent of its national debt is held by China. Last November, at the height of the pandemic, Zambia became the first country in Africa to declare insolvency for some of its debts. It is now asking China, as well as other countries in Africa, for debt relief.

A cartoon that appeared on WeChat last year in Chinese with the caption, “An illustrated handbook on how to sort foreign trash.”

The current global economic crisis is forcing African countries to renegotiate their debts to China, which constitute about 20 percent of all debts plaguing the continent. China, for its part, is seeking to crown itself the savior of the countries and is leading the initiative in the international community to arrange relief for them. Amid mounting critical discourse in the past year about China’s loans to African countries, Beijing recently deferred Kenya’s repayment of loans of $245 million.

China’s already complicated relations with countries in Africa had previously generated criticism there but also in the United States during the Trump administration. Widespread apprehension was voiced about Beijing’s utilization of “coronavirus diplomacy” to continue to foist on Africa the new-style colonialism it has been engaged in for some years. In April 2020, spurred by the incidents in Guangzhou, the Nigerian Medical Association rejected a plan by Lagos to bring in a team of 18 physicians from China to help deal with the pandemic, and urged the government to “rescind the decision in the overall interests of the country.” The association’s opposition to the group, which stirred a furor back in Nigeria, was abetted by false reports in the social media linking the arrival of Chinese physicians in Italy to a spike in COVID-19 cases there.

Alibaba connection

In certain senses, Africa’s race for a vaccination evokes a run on the market, like a "Black Friday": Everyone wants a certain product, and those at the head of the line – like Canada, which ordered something like five times as many doses as is needed for the entire population – will never turn their gaze to those behind them. As Orin Levine, director of global delivery programs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has pointed out, “the bare facts are that by the end of this year, probably 75 percent of population in high-income countries will be vaccinated,” compared with 25 percent in low-income countries. That's what happens when governments are willing to pay very high prices to get a place at the head of the line.

China is dispensing its vaccines to all takers, striking deals at a big discount with those in need and promising to become the solution to the problem for the entire global south.

In the long months during which the world waited for the life-saving vaccines, the term “vaccine nationalism” was coined – referring to the disparities that exist between the West and developing nations in terms of access to the vaccines manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna and especially AstraZeneca. The latter, which ended up selling vaccines to the highest bidders, was considered the great hope of many developing nations because its product is comparatively inexpensive and easy to transport and store. But what has been the fate of the African countries that have been left behind? Not only are they compelled to wait longer for deliveries, but they are reportedly being charged more than other countries.

Relatively well-off countries such as Israel are able to pay exorbitant prices to be at the head of the line. Uganda, for one, announced the purchase of 18 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine at $7 a dose – more than three times the price paid by the European Union. The EU agreed to buy large quantities of dosages and became frontrunners in the "vaccine market," while African countries were forced to pay higher prices for smaller amounts of vaccines and ended up last in line. The price per dose is due to increase further because of the rising costs of shipping the vaccine, which, in contrast to the rest of Africa, is due to arrive in Uganda already at the end of March.

South Africa, which has announced cessation of its AstraZeneca campaign, following evidence of the vaccine’s ineffectiveness against the local variant of the coronavirus, is paying 2.5 times the price per dose compared to European countries. The country previously experienced the behavior of the world’s private medical sector in dealing with global health crises, in its war against the HIV virus. Specifically, although the antiretroviral drugs developed in 1997 to treat AIDS entered the market in the mid-1990s, South Africa and other African countries, some of which have the highest rates of AIDs infection in the world, found it difficult to fight the epidemic because of the high prices charged for the so-called cocktail by the American pharmaceutical companies.

To ameliorate the situation, South Africa sought to develop a generic option, apparently importing those medications in violation of contracts they had with foreign firms. The country was sued by the pharmaceutical companies in an ugly legal battle that was called off only at the intervention of President George W. Bush, in 2001. In the 13 years that passed between the introduction of drugs and Bush’s move, there had been a 95-percent increase in deaths due to HIV among men in South Africa.

Exploiting the crisis

China has been able to exploit the current coronavirus crisis and the race for vaccines in Africa. Its two locally developed vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, became the most realistic and worthwhile options for the continent. In contrast to the high prices demanded of poor countries as part of vaccine nationalism phenomenon – whereby wealthy nations representing a small part of the world population are buying up over half of the most promising vaccines, according to the BBC – China is dispensing its vaccines to all takers. It is striking worthwhile deals at a big discount with those in need and promising to become the solution to the problem for the entire global south.

An Egyptian medical worker getting the COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital last month.Credit: Xinhua News Agency / Getty Image

At Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, an advanced logistical center was recently inaugurated from which the vaccines will continue to make their way to the rest of the continent. The center is the product of cooperation between Ethiopian Airlines, the largest local airline in Africa, and Cainiao Network Technology, the logistics unit of the giant Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba. Production plants of the vaccine have already begun to operate in Morocco and Egypt; the latter has reportedly received some 300,000 doses of the Chinese vaccines (which require regular refrigeration at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius), while another 200,000 have gone to Zimbabwe. Hundreds of thousands more have been allocated to the Republic of the Congo, while additional vaccines will soon be on their way to Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea and other countries. Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, is also in the midst of advanced negotiations with China to acquire vaccines.

China wants to be the centerpiece of this success story, said Eric Olander, cofounder of the China Africa Project, an independent media organization, in a podcast earlier this month about COVID-19 vaccine geopolitics. Olander, who’s based in Shanghai, added that China is making and exporting much larger quantities than are needed for its own domestic use, which is the opposite of what's happening in other wealthy countries. This phenomenon will continue as China keeps building manufacturing facilities around the globe.

The whole vaccination enterprise “is inadvertently confirming some preconceived ideas that Africans have about Europe and the U.S., particularly in regard to the hard capitalist approach that these countries frequently take to these problems,” Olander’s China Africa Project colleague Cobus van Staden noted on the same program. “It’s causing inequity, not only in those countries where we see people of color frequently lagging behind – suffering more from infections and also lagging behind in vaccinations – but also globally. There is this pecking order, and it’s hard to get away from the conflation of that with a kind of racial pecking order, perhaps, and this compounds ideas that Western countries are inherently self-centered and selfish.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, China sent thousands of medical teams, five million face masks and another million testing kits for the virus to African countries. The close cooperation between China and Africa led to a number of countries imposing lifesaving lockdowns, as recommended by Chinese health authorities, already in February 2020 when the first COVID-19 death occurred in Egypt.

Domestic cover-up?

The West is responsible for the conditions that led many countries to seek salvation in the Chinese vaccines, and for the fact that the ugly incidents in Guangzhou and Lusaka could be set aside by both Chinese and Africans.

A cynic might accuse China of using coronavirus diplomacy as a means of covering up domestic failures, such as dealing with the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, and to advance its extensive political and economic activities in Africa, which are causing broad dependence. Still, it’s difficult not to be struck by its practical diplomatic vigor, which no other great power has been displaying. In January, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, shuttled between four countries on the continent. In Tanzania he launched a vocational training center and discussed a joint railway venture, he signed a memorandum to bolster relations in Botswana, and in Nigeria, a country which just a few months earlier had experienced tension vis-a-vis Beijing, he concluded an agreement for the establishment of an intergovernmental committee to reinforce bilateral cooperation.

The highlight of the minister’s journey, it seems, was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is considered a close friend of the United States. In the shadow of America’s self-exclusion from Africa during the Trump presidency, Beijing stepped into the vacuum to erase debts of tens of millions of dollars and to defer other loan payments by African nations, and also to connect the DRC to its Belt and Road Initiative. The latter project involves some 70 countries – it’s an economic “silk road” of the 21st century – and offers them grants, loans and investments of hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure.

The anti-Chinese critique across Africa has maintained for some years that Beijing is using the investments and loans for their financing to indenture these countries, and that instead of employing local workers, Chinese manpower is being brought in for various local undertakings. On the other hand, China is the only power that has seen the need to view the coronavirus crisis and the vaccination project as a truly “global problem” and translate the slogan into deeds.

Western states and commentators had condemned the concealment of misleading reports on what President Trump called the “Chinese virus” by the authorities during the first months after its appearance, and they protest against China’s ostensible exploitation of the pandemic internationally in order to outshine other powers in supplying vaccines and buying hearts and minds. However, the West is responsible for the conditions that led many countries to seek salvation in the Chinese vaccines, and for the fact that the ugly incidents in both Guangzhou and Lusaka, for example, could be set aside, at least for the time being, by both Chinese and Africans.

“If China managed to give vaccines and save a large part of the African population, do you think they will see China negatively?” a former Rwandan health minister, Agnes Binagwaho, asked rhetorically, in an interview with the German media company Deutsche Welle. And she had a message for the West, too: “Be honest and say, ‘My people first.’ Don’t lie to us and say we are equal.”

Adam Rotbard has a master's degree in politics and governance from Ben-Gurion University, and works on the foreign affairs desk of the Kan Israel Public Broadcaster. His blog is called Kolot Me Africa (Voices From Africa).

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