The Covid-19 pandemic has posed the unprecedented challenge of distributing vaccines to the bulk of the world’s population. Excluded from the main deals for vaccine provision and still suffering from underfunded and under-resourced health systems, African countries have been forced into the position of recipients of Great Power health largesse. Despite accusations levelled at China and Russia for using “vaccine diplomacy” as a ploy to enhance their soft power, the US and Europe have so far offered little health support to African countries. It is forecasted that at the current pace, it might take years before Africa achieves an adequate vaccine coverage.
Though intuitive as a geopolitical narrative, the assumptions behind “vaccine diplomacy” have seldom been interrogated, and have often ignored African agency and the existing system of international health governance. How effective have multilateral bodies been in drawing lessons from previous health crises to respond to the Covid pandemic in Africa? How have African governments managed the external dimensions of their health responses? What has been the role of bilateral donors, particularly China, in supporting African governments and multilaterals, and what narratives and geostrategic considerations have driven their actions? To what extent can vaccine donations truly translate into increased soft power for China, given the growing pushback from civil society in many African countries against other dimensions of China-Africa relations? What are the prospects for Western governments to step up their contributions to the Covax scheme once a higher proportion of their populations gets fully vaccinated? And will global health come to constitute a new geopolitical battleground in the years to come?