- In Nigeria, less than 3% of the population has gotten the Covid vaccine. In the UK, 68% of people are fully vaccinated.
- Life is returning to normal in both places – but in Nigeria, most people must make do without the vaccine.
- There's a growing push to speed up vaccine access in poor countries.
I got my first COVID-19 vaccine shot in Nigeria in September.
I arrived at the health center at 5 in the morning and waited in line for hours. When it was finally my turn, the center was so packed with people that I had to stand up while getting my shot. Still, I considered myself lucky, since the day's supply often runs out.
A couple of weeks later, I was in the UK.
On Oct. 1, I strolled into an empty walk-in vaccination site and got my second dose. There was no registration system to navigate, no wait, and no risk that the center would run out of vaccine shots.
The two experiences were totally different and offered a stark illustration of how uneven the path out of this now two-year-long epidemic has been for those in Western countries versus places like West Africa.
In Nigeria, a country of 200 million people, just over 7 million vaccine doses have been administered, according to the World Health Organization. The most progress has been made in Lagos, a city that's home to over 21 million people, where nearly 474,000 residents have been fully vaccinated.
Thanks to the large number of fully vaccinated individuals across America, the UK, and other countries that have more than enough doses to vaccinate all their residents, stadiums, nightclubs, schools, comedy clubs, churches and others are returning to normal. Even as mask and vaccine mandates are still polarizing, the vaccine is available at supermarkets and health centers to whoever wants it.
The picture is very different in Nigeria, where vaccine doses have been trickling in from the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility. Things are largely back to normal – mostly because people don't have much of a choice. In January, the World Bank predicted that the pandemic will contribute to 10.9 million more Nigerians entering poverty in the next year.
Nigeria has said that a vaccination will soon be mandatory for civil servants. Schools have resumed full in-person classes. Tightly packed churches are also holding multiple services weekly and wedding parties are fully back at venues nationwide without vaccine requirements.
Meanwhile, people are still dying of Covid in Nigeria. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there have been 207,979 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 2,756 deaths. (That's also the case in the UK, where officials just announced 45,066 new Covid cases and 157 additional deaths.)
But due to inadequate, and the high cost, of testing, Nigeria's numbers likely mask the true scale of the pandemic.
On October 14, the WHO announced that six in seven COVID-19 infections go undetected in Africa.
"With limited testing, we're still flying blind in far too many communities in Africa," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's Regional Director for Africa, said in a statement. "Most tests are carried out on people with symptoms, but much of the transmission is driven by asymptomatic people, so what we see could just be the tip of the iceberg."
A long, stressful wait
In Ibadan, Nigeria's third-largest city, the Alegongo Primary Healthcare Center opens at 9am. People begin lining up at around 5 in the morning, hopeful that they will get a Covid vaccine. The whole process might take five hours.
Until early September, the center said they could only administer 50 shots a day, and only to people over the age of 18. On most days, if you arrived after 6:30 in the morning, you would be out of luck and would have to try again another day. Now, the center has about 100 doses per day to give out.
Taiwo Ilori, a middle-aged businessman who I met on line, said it had taken him three tries to get his elderly parents vaccinated, and only then did he try himself.
It's not enough to simply show up. If you want a vaccine, you must first sign up on the vaccination registration portal. There's no choice as to which vaccine you will get.
Health workers on night shifts at the center are often saddled with the task of arranging people on the queue and trying to enforce social distancing. Meanwhile, the facility also provides emergency services, routine care for illnesses like malaria and typhoid, care of pregnant women, and immunization shots.
In my case, and from what I've heard from others, there was no information given about possible side effects, how the vaccine works, or post-vaccine shot monitoring.
"It is very calm here"
Turreff Hall in Donnington, a UK city 120 miles northwest of London, has been serving as a COVID-19 vaccination center for the area. Here, over 70% of people aged 12 and over have been fully vaccinated. In some age groups, more than 97% have been fully vaccinated.
It has been very easy to get vaccinated at the historic hall, which was built during the Second World War by the American army. You can show up anytime between 9am and 4pm.
When I visited at around 12:40pm on Oct. 1 – it happened to be Nigeria's Independence Day – I found an open space with empty chairs that were spaced a socially-distanced length apart.
The employees running the site told me that since most everyone in the area had been vaccinated, only a few people, especially visitors and foreigners, now visit for the shots. When locals show up, it's mostly those that qualify for booster doses.
"It is very calm here these days even though we have sufficient vaccine doses," one of the officials said.
Right away, I was given my vaccination shot and told about possible side-effects. Afterwards, I was told to wait for 15 minutes in one of the chairs in case I experienced any post-vaccination complications.
I got the Pfizer vaccine, although the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines were also available at different sites nearby.
'Ignoring a whole continent'
From early September, when universities prepared to begin their fall semester, there's been a surge in Nigerian students travelling to the UK, as well as confusion around the vaccination rules.
Since February, anyone arriving from Nigeria and other African countries – even if they were fully vaccinated – was required to show a negative Covid test before boarding a UK-bound airplane, and then isolate for 10 days upon arrival and submit to another two Covid tests.
This week the UK government announced that fully-vaccinated travelers from Nigeria would no longer be required to self-isolate or take multiple Covid tests.
The UK estimates that around 190,000 people born in Nigeria live in the UK, including around 10,000 university students.
"I was fully vaccinated before I came to the UK but it was very embarrassing to find out that the vaccination I received meant nothing to officials here," a Nigerian student in Birmingham, who asked not to be referred to by name, told me. During her quarantine, she said, she received a check-in visit from the UK's National Health Service. "At some point they indirectly threatened me when they said a Nigerian woman and her two kids were deported because they were not at home when the officials visited their address."
At the recently held General Assembly of the United Nations, several African leaders urged countries like the UK to urgently stop vaccine hoarding and share with African countries.
Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo noted that around 900 million people in Africa need to be vaccinated in order to get to a level of vaccine coverage that the UK and other Western countries have attained.
This week, the head of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told CNN that Western countries should delay administering booster shots until people around the world have access to the vaccine.
"To start boosters is really the worst we can do as a global community," he said. "It is unjust and also unfair because we will not stop the pandemic by ignoring a whole continent, and the continent that doesn't have any manufacturing capacity of other means."