Neocolonialism in Action: Vaccine Acquisition and Hesitancy in the West and Sub-Saharan Africa


Amidst the cries for proper prevention protocols and the cycle of false alarms and viral resurgence, a new player has emerged in the global struggle against COVID-19: vaccines. Highly anticipated in the past year, these numerous, seemingly effective vaccinations against the virus have taken the world by storm, with countries striving to purchase as much of the drugs’ limited supply as possible within their economic and politically dominative feasibility. The current situation provides not only a glimpse into a future free of COVID-19 but also a flashback to the past and the lingering effects of colonialism.

The decolonization wave that swept through Sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-1900s, marking the termination of European imperialism, saw the rise of newly-sovereign states. But as their inhabitants would soon find out, attempting to build a self-reliant state after decades of imperialism proved to be difficult. In a global arena already dominated by powerful states, the fledgling nations found themselves at an economic and influential disadvantage, ultimately succumbing to ‘aid’ in the form of loans and external intervention to achieve peace in the face of internal conflict. And it was in this way that the tipped balance of neocolonialism had been set: the Sub-Saharan African states in economic and political dependence on key global players such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.[1]

Active neocolonialism affects Sub-Saharan African states’ national vaccination resources and knowledge. It is reported that in July of 2020, six months before the approval of the first two COVID-19 vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, the United States (soon followed by Western counterparts like Canada and the UK) was promised the first round of effective doses, totaling up to 100 million and with an option of acquiring up to 500 million additional doses[2][3]. In stark contrast are Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and South Africa, who have only begun to rely heavily on independent donations and donations through the World Health Organization’s new COVAX program since this February.[4] The global initiative distributes vaccines acquired as donations from vaccine developers and nations for no cost with the purpose of achieving equitable vaccination access across the world. It is evident, then, that African countries have been substantially less successful in securing COVID-19 vaccines, of which 75% have already been distributed to only ten countries, the majority of them listed as high-income.[5]

To further demonstrate the lasting inequalities of the European colonialism of Sub-Saharan Africa, the quality of vaccination purchased or received must be analyzed. A New York Times dissection of vaccine administration as per vaccine type and income showed 611 million immunizations of AstraZeneca and Oxford, 293 million immunizations of Pfizer-BioNTech, and 206 million immunizations of Moderna, the three most effective vaccine types, were administered to high-income countries as opposed to 291 million, 68 million, and none to low-income—the majority of Sub-Saharan African—countries respectively.[2] While most African countries who have registered with COVAX have received either the AstraZeneca and Oxford or Novavax vaccines in limited amounts, the overwhelming majority of these countries’ available and incoming doses are donations of China’s Sinopharm vaccine.

Sinopharm’s problematic side-effects have yet to be made widely known, particularly because it has only been on the global market for the past few months. Pakistani health workers’ hesitancy towards Sinopharm, the only available vaccine developer in the nation, has been reflected in a recent Reuters poll, where 58% of medical personnel found the rapid development of the vaccine to be a reason for suspicion.[6] Similar is the curious case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the few developed countries administering the Sinopharm vaccine. Despite Dr. Nawal Al Kaabi, chairwoman of the National Covid-19 Clinical Management Committee, saying that there were no deaths or ICU admissions among those vaccinated, a few UAE experts recounted their opposing personal experiences with the Yale Review of International Studies.[4][7] Dr. Shereen Salah, a former clinical pathologist who now works at Appnodez as a product manager, and Dr. Begad Samy, Head of Physical Medicine at Mediclinic Airport Road Hospital, both recalled the aftermath of their vaccinations: while they experienced no symptoms immediately following both doses except for significant pain at the site of injection, both Dr. Salah and Dr. Sami became infected with a harsh bout of COVID-19 less than a month later and entered a 14-day quarantine after their symptoms wore off. Additionally, Dr. Salah noted, she infected her children soon after, causing them to enter a 21-day quarantine. The conclusion she and Dr. Samy drew was that not only is Sinopharm ineffective in protecting against the virus, but it also does not eliminate the possibility of being infectious. And yet, Sinopharm’s stated effectiveness is 86%. 

Perhaps similar encounters with Sinopharm can explain the continued vaccine hesitancy overtaking Sub-Saharan Africa, even for COVID-19 and despite its current global gravity. Only 68% percent of Nigerians, 49% of the Congolese, and 50% of Zimbabweans would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ take the vaccine as soon as possible.[4] [8] As the first Sub-Saharan African country to take the Sinopharm vaccine (by donation) on February 15, Zimbabwe has experienced significant resistance from even their medical personnel.[9] The president of the 12,000-member nurses’ union, Enock Dongo, says that they “need information on the safety of [Sinopharm]…its…side effects and percentage of protection.”

The data proves to be reasonable considering state access to each vaccine type and the research that has been done surrounding it: Sinopharm is fairly new to the global market and does not experience significant global competition, with the dominant Western powers placing their trust in Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. In the global arena, it is far too easy for the economically and politically dominant players to place their needs as a priority, as shown by the concentration of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech in high-income states. Other players such as Zimbabwe or Nigeria become secondary, their circumstances determined by the former’s course of action. As time progresses and more individuals are vaccinated around the world, the disparity between citizen health in Sub-Saharan African and Western high-income countries will widen significantly.

COVID-19 death rates will dwindle in states like the United States, Canada, and the UK as a larger portion of the population is covered and herd immunity is achieved while Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria, and others will experience more deaths, shifting the age demographic to a point where more than 70% of their populations are under 30 years of age.[10] Most COVID-19 related deaths are not even formally registered in the majority of African countries, increasing the chances of the rest of the world improving their virus statistics without realizing the gravity of the Sub-Saharan African situation and leading to spontaneous viral outbreaks such as the Ebola outbreak, other clustered malaria outbreaks, and the HIV/AIDS issue at hand; the severity and spread of COVID-19 as well as the resulting deaths are inaccurately portrayed to the world due to factors such as a lack of adequate health-survey resources, deaths being attributed to COVID-19 complications without acknowledgement of the virus’ influence, poorly structured health protocols, and governmental corruption.[11] Once again, the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa have found themselves in their same positions as the twentieth century, only now neocolonialism affects vaccine acquisition and the lives of Sub-Saharan Africa’s billion inhabitants.


[1] Domatob, J. K. “Sub-Saharan Africa’s Media and Neocolonialism.” Africa Media Review 3, no. 1 (1988): 149–74.

[2] Twohey, Megan, Keith Collins, and Katie Thomas. “With First Dibs on Vaccines, Rich Countries Have ‘Cleared   the Shelves.’” The New York Times, December 15, 2020, sec. U.S.

[3]Jason Murdock. “Which Countries Have Already Secured COVID Vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna?” Newsweek, November 18, 2020.

[4] “Covid-19 Africa: Who Is Getting the Vaccine?” BBC News, March 19, 2021, sec. Reality Check.

[5] Dzinamarira, Tafadzwa, Brian Nachipo, Bright Phiri, and Godfrey Musuka. “COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-Out in South Africa and Zimbabwe: Urgent Need to Address Community Preparedness, Fears and Hesitancy.” Vaccines 9, no. 3 (March 12, 2021): 250.

[6] Farooq, Umar. “Pakistan Health Workers Hesitate over Sinopharm Vaccine, Poll Says.” Reuters, March 5, 2021.

[7] The National. “Sinopharm Vaccine in UAE: How Effective Is It against Covid-19 and Are There Side Effects?,” March 1, 2021.

[8]GeoPoll. “Vaccine Hesitancy and COVID-19 Vaccine Acceptance in Sub-Saharan Africa,” December 11, 2020.

[9]Presse, AFP-Agence France. “Zimbabwe Nurses ‘Reluctant’ To Take Covid Vaccine: Union.” Accessed March 21, 2021.

[10] “Statistics on Youth | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.” Accessed March 27, 2021. -radio-day-2013/statistics-on-youth/.

[11] Maclean, Ruth. “A Continent Where the Dead Are Not Counted.” The New York Times, January 2, 2021, sec. World.