The Washington Post published an opinion on March 5 headlined “Don’t believe the hype about China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in Africa.” The article is not long, but it raises several points that deserve attention.
First, the commentary argues that China should be praised for its vaccine aid to Africa, rather than being subjected to unfounded suspicion and cynicism.
It was an objective and impartial analysis that is rare in a situation where Western powers have egotistically monopolized and hoarded vaccines and refused to provide any to Africa.
China is a strong proponent of fair vaccine distribution. It has joined the WHO’s COVAX, pledging to provide the first 10 million vaccine doses expressly for the urgent needs of developing countries, of which African countries are, of course, the main beneficiaries.
As of early March, China sent 120 batches of emergency anti-epidemic supplies to Africa, provided vaccines to 35 African countries and the African Union Commission and sent medical teams of experts to 15 African countries to combat the epidemic. In addition, China will cooperate with African countries in the building of vaccine production plants. For example, it plans to build a factory with Egypt.
On March 15, China sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, promising to donate 300,000 vaccine doses to UN peacekeepers, with priority for use in African mission areas.
China has always been guided by laudable principles in providing vaccines to African countries: It opposes “vaccine nationalism” and “vaccine diplomacy” and believes that vaccines should be developed as a global public good. It strives to improve the accessibility and affordability of vaccines in developing countries.
Second, the commentary noted, China’s humanitarian assistance to Africa, including medical aid, is nothing new. Since the first medical team was sent to Africa in 1963, China has sent a total of 21,000 (or 26,000 according to the country’s data) medical personnel to more than 50 African countries and regions, providing 220 million medical treatments (China puts it as 270 million) over the past 50 years.
Most of China’s aid to Africa until 2000 was provided through bilateral agreements, when the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation became a multilateral platform for Chinese medical aid to Africa, which makes it easier for Beijing to help African countries build health facilities, provide medicines and medical equipment and to train medical workers.
In fact, at the 2006 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China pledged to help Africa build 30 general hospitals, a mission that has already been accomplished. In 2017 China announced plans to aid the construction of 100 more hospitals and clinics in Africa over five years, admit 120,000 African medical personnel to China for training and provide scholarships for 150,000 African medical students. China believes that improving the medical capacity of African countries will help promote African economic development, maintain social stability and improve people’s lives.
Chinese scientists and medical workers were worried about Africa when a form of malaria claimed millions of lives each year. After years of hard work, a drug called artemisinin was developed, which is an effective treatment. This potentially saves millions of lives each year. Tu Youyou, the key developer of to this major scientific advance, was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Third, the commentary pointed out that China is committed to helping African countries fight the Ebola virus, an extremely vicious pathogen mainly prevalent in African countries. It was first discovered in 1978 in southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with several outbreaks over the years in many countries. Its mortality rate is 50 to 90 percent.
From 2014 to 2016, the largest Ebola outbreak ever known erupted in Africa, affecting more than 10 countries, including Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. More than 28,000 people were infected and more than 11,000 died.
The significant reduction in the death rate compared with previous outbreaks was due to the international community’s rescue efforts, which involved many countries, mainly China and the United States.
After the outbreak, China was the first to send special planes to carry medical personnel to the infected countries. More than 1,200 Chinese medical personnel and experts participated in the work. According to incomplete statistics, China has provided protective supplies, food and cash to Africa valued at more than 750 million yuan. The Obama administration announced the dispatch of 3,000 military personnel to the epidemic-stricken countries, with a commitment of $750 million.
What is striking is the effective communication and pragmatic cooperation between Chinese and U.S. medical personnel during the Ebola rescue, which was well-received internationally in public opinion. According to an article published in The Hindu on October 21, 2014, even though Beijing and Washington were embroiled in a strategic rivalry, both countries avoided public displays of that rivalry and both expressed a willingness to cooperate in fighting Ebola in Africa.
U.S. President Joe Biden said China is America’s most serious competitor, but he is also prepared to work with China when it is in America’s interest to do so. At present, the global epidemic is still serious, and the United States is still the hardest-hit nation, so cooperation with China in the fight against the disease should be in America’s interest. It is hoped that Biden will take action to restore cooperation between China the United States — the kind once demonstrated in the fight against Ebola. This is in the interest of the United States and beyond.