A few days ago, a publication made the rounds about the World Health Organisation (WHO) withholding supply of COVID-19 vaccines to some countries, one of which was Nigeria. The reason quoted was, amongst other things, that Nigeria does not have the requisite storage facilities for the vaccines, which are required to be stored at very low temperature – as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius in case of the Pfizer vaccine.
While WHO has through its country representative, Dr. Walter Mulombo, issued a statement to the contrary, it is hardly news that Nigeria does not have the cold chain equipment required to deliver vaccines to all its citizens. This much could also be read into the statement given by Dr. Mulombo.
Research has shown that energy security and access are key drivers of healthcare. In one of its reports, WHO confirmed that delivering the vaccines to the last mile user in developing countries will prove very challenging, particularly because of infrastructure and power deficit.
With the loss of vaccines (non-COVID) around the world due to temperature fluctuations amounting to $US34.1 billion annually, it is hardly rocket science to decide not to give limited vaccines to a country without the requisite facilities to store them.
The vaccine supply chain does not stop at the central medical repository but goes all the way to the states and cities, towns and villages and the vaccines would need proper storage to stay viable. Sustainable power supply can meet this demand. Yet many Nigerian healthcare facilities do not have access to power supply and for those that have, the supply is epileptic, merely reflecting the country’s poor power outlook. While the cold chain challenge equally affects most countries, with energy poverty already prevalent in Nigeria, it leaves the country’s over 200 million population extremely vulnerable.
Nigeria should not be sitting on her hands and crying wolf about WHO not giving her Pfizer vaccines, she should be working tirelessly to put the vaccine cold chain infrastructure in place and become vaccine-ready. The government should roll out strategic and effective plans to deploy renewable energy (particularly solar) solutions in form of solar fridges and freezers to healthcare centres up to the last mile. Sufficient funding should also be deployed towards scaling innovations around renewable energy (RE) cooling technologies to drive COVID-19 recovery.
Nigeria’s situation is reminiscent of the Holy Bible’s parable of the ten virgins, five of whom were foolish and five of whom were wise. For the foolish, even though also expecting the arrival of a bridegroom, unlike the wise, they failed to keep their lamps up with extra oil. They just waited and “hoped things would work out”.
As a country, we cannot continue to act out that role. With almost 150, 000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and about 1,600 deaths, there is a need to act fast. Perhaps it is worth mentioning too, that the recovery process for COVID-19 will have countries that fall behind on vaccinating their population facing differentiated treatment like continuing restrictions on travel while other countries are allowed unrestricted travel. This will have economic consequences.
With grid power getting to only just 40% of Nigerians, off-grid electrification and cooling is key to beating the country’s COVID problem and deploying the vaccines effectively. It would be counterintuitive too if the off-grid solution is one that adds to environmental pollution as that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. WHO’s statistics show that air pollution kills up to 7 million people worldwide every year, so any solution for storing vaccines should be targeted at also reducing emissions. Apart from RE options being cleaner, they are also efficient and more affordable than fossil fuel alternatives.
A proper renewable energy program and policy guidelines to encourage investment should be put in place at the Federal, State and Local government levels, particularly for underserved and last-mile communities who may otherwise never be able to access the vaccine. With rural populations being more vulnerable to COVID-19 infections and often lacking adequate healthcare to drive recovery, attention must be paid to them in all of this.
While India has rolled out a massive vaccination-ready programme with about 29,000 cold chain points, excluding walk-in coolers, walk-in freezers, deep freezers and solar refrigerators, Nigeria cannot honestly claim to be ready for the vaccines. The government should ramp up collaborative efforts with private sector and non-profit organisations, institutes of technology and vocational centres and entrepreneurs innovating around clean energy to drive COVID recovery through clean energy. Lessons can also be drawn from countries like Rwanda that have set up functioning climate-friendly cold chains for vaccine delivery. There is no escaping massive RE funding and support if Nigeria is to achieve vaccination and recovery for its population, so we might as well start now.