The unvaccinated: equality not charity in Southern Africa – new ICJ report

Southern African States have individually and collectively failed to provide sufficient and equitable COVID-19 vaccine access to meet their human rights obligations, the ICJ said today in a new briefing paper entitled The Unvaccinated: Equality not Charity in Southern Africa.

The paper focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional economic community comprising 16 Southern African countries whose goal is to enhance the standard and quality of life of the peoples in the region.

The publication considers SADC and its Member States’ collective failure to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines despite more than 63,000 lives lost to the virus and countless others’ lives and livelihoods affected in the region.

This is due to a multitude of reasons, some common amongst the countries and others unique to individual Member States. While Tanzania and Madagascar denied the existence of the virus and rejected COVID-19 vaccines respectively, other countries with relatively greater resources, such as South Africa, failed to mobilize their resources adequately and equitably.

“COVID-19 is a global pandemic, but its impact was aggravated in southern Africa by the failure of governments to prepare and respond, individually or through SADC,” said Tim Fish Hodgson, ICJ’s Legal adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in Johannesburg.

Combatting deadly communicable diseases like COVID-19 is one of the founding objectives under SADC’s founding treaty, and is also accounted for under the SADC Health Protocol. Yet, SADC has failed to provide almost any concrete guidance or coordinating role in regional procurement of COVID-19 vaccines since October 2020, prior to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. While SADC’s chair, President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique has encouraged a regional pooling of resources to facilitate procurement of necessary vaccines and distribution in a statement in January 2021, SADC has since taken no clear action towards this goal.

“While powerful global actors have erected roadblocks to equitable vaccine access in southern Africa, this should not conceal the burning need for SADC States to take essential measures to mobilize their collective resources towards efficient and equitable vaccine acquisition, allocation and distribution.  As our research shows, they have failed to do so and SADC has been conspicuously silent,” Hodgson said.

These dire circumstances have led Fatima Hassan, South African human rights defender and director of the Health Justice Initiative, to observe that “philanthropy [and] benevolence cannot fund equality” in vaccine access.  Indeed, the donation of vaccine doses through COVAX and other measures are not enough, and without rapid and adequate action to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, it might be too late.

The ICJ’s research at a global and regional level have emphasized the urgent need for international institutions like the World Trade Organization and wealthier States to help countries to manufacture or otherwise acquire and distribute vaccines at affordable prices unimpeded by rigid intellectual property rights restrictions.

“All States should urgently heed the proposal by South Africa and India before the WTO for a waiver of the TRIPS intellectual property rules to allow faster, wider, and better distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” Hodgson said.

“It is encouraging to see the United States end their opposition to the TRIPS waiver, and we hope that other States, in the European Union, Switzerland, Norway, and Brazil, will end their opposition and recognize that until everyone is safe, no one is truly safe.”

The ICJ emphasized that efforts by SADC and Southern African States is essential alongside ramped up global action.

“The pandemic is raging around the world even though a few countries, mostly the wealthiest, are now able to look beyond the worst of it. Most countries in Southern Africa remain unvaccinated, and in fact we are looking at new devastating waves of the illness. SADC should immediately improve efforts at collaboration and coordination to ensure compliance with their human rights obligation to provide everyone in the region with vaccine access as soon as possible,” Hodgson added.

The ICJ makes recommendations to specific States including Malawi, Tanzania, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as a range of general recommendations to the SADC, including:

  • The SADC Secretariat should urgently and actively facilitate and advance sub-regional COVID-19 vaccine procurement and distribution between the Member States.
  • The SADC Secretariat should provide clear guidance to Member States on their human rights obligations pertaining to vaccine access. They should take effective action to address the failure of Member States to act according to their obligations under international law, including under regional agreements.
  • All SADC member States should, as a matter of priority, develop, publish and publicize national vaccine acquisition and rollout plans and procurement strategies, detailing concrete measures to ensure non-discriminatory access to vaccines to all people.


Timothy Fish Hodgson, Legal Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, timothy.hodgson(a)

Tanveer Jeewa, Legal and Communications Officer, tanveer.jeewa(a)


Africa-The Unvaccinated-Publications-Reports-2021-ENG (full report, in PDF)

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