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Slow Views

On Covid and climate, rich countries can’t afford to be selfish

Wednesday 15 September 2021

Due to vaccine inequality, trust is breaking down ahead of the crucial Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow. Genuine solidarity is needed to solve both transnational crises


In the capital city of Gabon, on Africa’s Atlantic coast, the pandemic feels far from over. Mask-wearing is compulsory in public buildings, police enforce a 9pm curfew, and, at the airport, travellers are sprayed from head to toe in disinfectant.

So far, the country has passed through the pandemic relatively unscathed. Officially, it has suffered just 173 recorded deaths from Covid-19 and 26,000 cases. The real numbers are likely to be higher – but not, one official tells me, dramatically so. 

Yet now, Gabon is entering a third wave – cases have shot up in recent weeks to an average of 104 new cases per day during the past week, from a total population of just 2.2 million. The Delta variant, which ravaged India, now accounts for 18 per cent of all new cases – a fact identified through virus sequencing at a laboratory in Gabon. Just 3.7 per cent of the population have had their first dose and just 2.7 per cent have had two: levels comparable to those in India when the Delta variant struck.

The government has invested a lot into controlling Covid – filling a stadium with beds, boosting testing laboratories – but it would welcome more help. To date, it has secured 1,424,466 vaccine doses, covering 32 per cent of the population, from Sputnik, Sinopharm and Johnson & Johnson. Doses from Pfizer are now on the way. However, the country is on the hunt for more. Just 9 per cent of secured doses – 400,000 in sum – have been delivered. 

Gabon’s challenge – aside from misinformation that dissuades Gabonese people from taking the vaccine – is that it is both too rich to qualify for doses donated through Covax, but too poor to have any real purchasing power. It is on its own, in a battle the whole world is fighting. 

In this sense, the parallels between Covid and the climate crisis are, in Gabon, stark. Both are global crises that require global solutions. And, for both, genuine international solidarity is missing.

“Gabon, a country that needs help, is preserving its forests [which cover 88 per cent of the country and help it to absorb 100 million tonnes of CO2 more per year than it emits] because it wants to save the world… developed countries should show solidarity and come to help us – because they have the vaccines, and the means to help fight this medical crisis,” says Guy Patrick Obiang Ndong, Gabon’s health minister. 

He is not the first to have made the link between vaccine equity and the global fight against climate change. In July, Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told Sky News that global vaccine inequality could have a very real impact on the international effort to tackle climate change at Cop26, because it had eroded “trust capital” between developed and developing nations. 

He warned that international solidarity was “a prerequisite to solving big problems like fighting a pandemic,” but that countries had instead looked inwards – protecting their own citizens while others suffered, and hoarding vaccine supplies while the poorer countries of the world ran short. “Because of that, it becomes very difficult for the collective ‘us’ to sit around the table and discuss critical issues and fundamental issues like climate change,” he said.

Gabon is still keen to get around the table – if they can. “I think the pandemic was an amazing opportunity for the world to start again – to work together,” says Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, lead negotiator of the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change and a special advisor to the president of Gabon, Ali Bongo Ondimba. “Why did we have a vaccine so soon? Because all the scientists in America and France worked together… It is the same for climate change. Problems cross borders, and solutions need to cross borders, too.”

Yet African nations, and their climate interests, risk being sidelined at Cop26 – despite sub-Saharan Africa being one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change – as they have at similar meetings in the past. 

Eighteen African countries are currently on the UK’s red travel list, meaning their representatives will have to quarantine for five days if they are fully vaccinated and ten days if they are not. Many, Gahouma-Bekale told me, simply cannot afford extra nights in a hotel. Some members of the Gabon delegation are struggling to secure visas, and accommodation in Glasgow is difficult to find. “There is a strong risk that Africa cannot be well represented at this Cop for the first time,” says Gahouma-Bekale.

That’s a huge problem for Africa – because while Cop is a conference convened to tackle a global crisis, it is fundamentally a forum where states hash out their own agendas. “It is not about climate justice. It is about national interests. Countries think more about themselves than they do about the world,” says Gahouma-Bekale. 

If African representatives aren’t there – or aren’t there in big enough numbers to be in every negotiating room – their interests in the climate emergency won’t be fought for. And those interests, at Cop, are quite different to those of developed countries. 

One of the main priorities currently on the itinerary for Cop26 is for countries to set out their own Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) towards global emissions reductions. That’s important for high-emitting countries like China and the USA, or in Europe. “But it is not our priority,” says Gahouma-Bekale. African countries emit less than 4 per cent of the global total – Gabon even sequesters 100 million tonnes more carbon than it emits. 

They would rather focus on adaptation – to make sure that farmers can still grow crops that feed their communities, for example – and financing – to get money to countries most affected by the climate emergency so they can cope with the changes it is bringing. At a pre-Cop session in June, neither were discussed, says Gahouma-Bekale.

Sadly, this follows the patterns of previous conferences. In 2009, developed countries committed to deliver $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries deal with the impacts of the climate emergency, and to transition to lower carbon economies. The outcome of that promise was underwhelming. “We have no proof that this money is already in our countries – we see nothing,” says Gahouma-Bekale.

In Glasgow, the African nations will be asking both for a higher sum of $700m per year to be discussed, and for a mechanism that tracks where the money goes, to make sure richer nations come good on their promise, and so the impact of negotiations can be measured.

Cop26, the most important UN climate conference to date, falls at a time when trust between nations is low but the necessity for collective action has rarely, if ever, been higher. The global vaccine roll-out – or lack thereof – has shown that when a crisis strikes, developed countries turn inwards. They batten down the hatches. They prioritise their own. 

The planet cannot afford for developed nations to prioritise their own self-interest at Cop. To show genuine solidarity with the countries on the frontline of the climate crisis, they must make sure that those countries’ concerns about adaptation and financing are heard – and that they are not excluded because they are battling a virus for which developed nations hold the vaccines.


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