It was only a matter of time before a new Covid-19 variant made its presence felt on the world. In many respects the international community owes a debt of gratitude for the speed at which scientists in South Africa, where the new variant was detected, alerted the global authorities. 

The latest threat called B.1.1.529, is described as especially worrying because it comprises of a very unusual constellation of mutations which have the potential to evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible. 

That this new variant should stem from the African continent was never a foregone conclusion. That said, it should perhaps come as little surprise given the struggle the continent has had in containing the virus through the lack of available vaccine provision. Currently the vaccination rate in Africa a continent of 54 countries and 1.3 billion people sit at 9.8%. In other words, this vast section of the global community is still struggling to reach double digits in vaccinating its population. Even the second worst performer in terms of continents, Asia, has reached 60% vaccination rates. 

In such a disparate region as Africa there are of course wide discrepancies in terms of vaccination rates with nations like Morocco having vaccinated 65% of its people while in South Africa, where the latest variant was detected, 27% are vaccinated with other countries like Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) trailing at 5.4% and 0.13% respectively.  

Right now, as outlined earlier this year by Ahmed Kalebi, a prominent Kenyan pathologist and founder of Lancet Kenya, there are only two countries in the whole of Africa that have the capacity to produce vaccines, these being South Africa and Senegal. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera a few months ago, Kalebi pointed out that it is not always as simple as blaming Western nations for Africa’s woeful vaccination rate, describing how in his own native Kenya, “money is poured into politics… or other things but health.”  

But Kalebi like many other prominent African medical practitioners, also recognises that almost two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, much of Africa is still asking for vaccines and little help is forthcoming from richer more developed nations.  

In what has been described as “vaccine apartheid” by no less than South Africa’s own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the statistics speak for themselves. 

Just to put Africa’s 9.8 % vaccination rate into perspective, this compares to 60 % of the US population and upwards of 75 % in some wealthy European and Asian nations.  

Writing just a few days ago in Foreign Policy magazine, British-Nigerian journalist Nosmot Gbadamosi, outlined how research from the global health intelligence think-tank Airfinity, detailed how 96 per cent of Moderna’s vaccines, which benefited from US taxpayer-funded technology, have gone to wealthier countries.  

The report by Airfinity published this month also found that among countries that participated in clinical trials, poorer countries received fewer doses than richer ones of the vaccines they helped test. Richer nations also continue to stockpile vaccines.  

For its part, the administration of US president Joe Biden has brought pressure to bear, resulting in Moderna agreeing to sell 110 million doses to African Union member nations, but this is barely enough to reach less than 10 per cent of the continent’s population. 

In a recent article published by the Johannesburg based social justice media outlet New Frame, authors outlined what is seen by many as rich countries and their big pharmaceutical companies all but abandoning an entire continent. 

“Some of my colleagues have started to call it racism. Letting a whole continent have such limited access to vaccines smacks of nothing less,” Mohga Kamal-Yanni, senior health policy adviser at The Peoples Vaccine Alliance was quoted by New Frame as saying.  

Some African leaders point to the backfiring of Covax as a prime example of how the world has failed Africa. Covax of course was the vaccine mainstay of the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator initiative, whereby pharmaceutical companies were supposed to voluntarily pool their manufactured vaccines and rich nations were to pay for doses to be made available to poorer countries.  

As a new variant emerges from Africa and the continent continues to struggle with vaccine provision, one can’t help wondering if the international community might now deeply regret not ensuring that vaccines were made equally available for all.  



Ukraine: More Russian sabre rattling or the real thing this time?  


We have of course been here before. More than seven years after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, it’s not the first time a massive Russian military build-up in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas has got Washington and its European and Nato allies jumpy.  

“We see an unusual concentration of troops, and we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine,” Nato secretary general Jen Stoltenberg said of the recent troop build-up. Moscow for its part has dismissed such concerns as “alarmist.” 

Washington however says, “the build-up is being taken seriously and the United States is not assuming it is a bluff.” 

Dissecting just what is going on in this latest crisis is not much easier than before, given the claims and counterclaims from both sides. But there is no doubt that much is happening on the ground both in eastern Ukraine and in the Ukrainian capital Kiev over the past few days. Some reports describe Russian-controlled forces in eastern Ukraine as increasing combat readiness, while Bloomberg news agency cited two “unnamed sources,” as saying that Moscow has “called up tens of thousands of reservists on a scale unprecedented in post-Soviet times.”  

The Ukrainian government and military themselves no doubt with one eye on ensuring US and Nato support have also be keen to stress the extent of the Russian threat. According to Ukraine Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Russia is planning an attack around the end of January or early February that would likely involve “airstrikes, artillery and armour attacks.” This would be followed by airborne and amphibious assaults and a smaller land incursion through neighbouring Belarus, Budanov told the Military Times in an exclusive interview. 

But it is perhaps events of the last few days in Kiev where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a Friday press conference claimed that his country’s security services had uncovered a plot for an attempted coup with the involvement of Russians that has rattled analysts most.  

According to Reuters Zelenskiy did not give full details of the coup plot and did not accuse the Russian state of involvement, though he also spoke at length at the press conference of a threat of Russian military escalation and said Ukraine would be ready for it. 

“We have challenges not only from the Russian Federation and possible escalation - we have big internal challenges. I received information that a coup d’etat will take place in our country on Dec. 1-2,” Zelenskiy said. Ukraine had audio recordings as evidence of the coup plot, Zelenskiy added.  

Once again, the Kremlin shrugged their shoulders in response, swiftly denying any role in any coup plot, saying it had no plans to take part in such acts. 

Whether Russia is indeed about to move militarily on eastern Ukraine, remains anybody’s guess. But should it do so, it will stir into being one almighty international crisis. 



Turkey: Erdogan under pressure over unpopular economic policies


A decade ago, it cost around 1.8 Turkish lira to buy a single US dollar, but today that figure stands at almost ten. It’s just one example of the extent to which Turkey’s economy is in freefall under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  

As is well known the bullish Turkish leader is not man who takes criticism easily, if at all, but even Erdogan must see the writing on the wall right now after recent polls showed support for his Justice and Development party (AKP) has fallen around 10 percentage points from parliamentary elections in 2018 to hit historic lows of between 30% and 33%. 

With inflation that accelerated to almost 20% last month, analysts say that something in the region of 30% of the Turkish electorate are now struggling to get by.  The minimum wage in Turkey, which was worth the equivalent of £417 at its highest, is now down to just £191. 

The finger pointing for such disastrous fiscal figures is now firmly towards Erdogan whose approach to running Turkey’s $765bn economy has in the eyes of many gone off the rails.  

For so long now the Turkish president has been in an unassailable position politically but the country’s opposition is sensing their moment and pushing harder than ever for early elections which are scheduled for June 2023. That said, Erdogan has categorically ruled out the possibility of early elections leaving some observers to believe that what we might be witnessing is the beginning of the end of the AKP. 

As ever when under pressure Erdogan will doubtless try to create a distraction and find others to blame, a point made recently by Steven A Cook, author and senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

“For years, Erdogan has hammered away at an alleged foreign plot that includes the “interest rate lobby,” the CIA, Zionists, the West, the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, and others who seek to bring Turkey down, but the only explanation for the economic suffering among Turks is Erdogan’s own mismanagement,” observed Cook in a recent article. 

For the moment Erdogan is left looking to friends to offer a political and economic get out of jail card. An offer by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to invest billions in Turkey has for the time being helped stave off the criticism a little but remains a drop in the ocean. For now, Erdogan as ever remains defiant, but his days as Turkish leader may well be numbered. 



Honduras: Country on knife edge over elections 


It’s a long time since I was last in Honduras, decades in fact. During the intervening years, the Central American country has been a troubled place where 59 % percent of its 10 million people live in poverty. 

Most recently too Honduras has acquired the infamous reputation of having one of the world’s highest murder rates, being wracked by corruption and beset by powerful drug-trafficking gangs that have even made their presence felt in the top ranks of government.  But today (Sunday) the nation head to the polls in the hope of electing a new president.  

Ever since the 2009 coup d’etat that deposed Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the country has been run by the right-wing National Party of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, accused in the US of involvement in drug trafficking. 

In today’s ballot Zelaya's wife and former first lady Xiomara Castro, of the leftist LIBRE party, leads in several opinion polls. But many fear the ruling party, represented by Nasry Asfura mayor of the country’s capital city Tegucigalpa, will not readily give up power. The National Party does after all have form when it comes to bending the rules. 

Last time Hondurans voted in presidential elections, in 2017, it sparked mass protests and a brutal crackdown by security forces that resulted in the death of more than 20 people. 

Even the run up to today's poll has revealed the extent of the country’s division with at least 29 people having been killed in election related violence according to the UN Human Right Office.  

“I am deeply worried by what we are witnessing in Honduras,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The elections are yet to take place, but political violence is already at disturbing levels.” 

Hondurans desperate for change are pinning their hopes on Castro to alter the nation’s course. She would become the nation’s first female president, but even should she win, Castro like most of the nation will face a difficult time ahead.  

Following previous electoral problems this time around the Organisation of American States (OAS) is sending 80 electoral observers, and Honduras electoral agency estimates some 7,400 election monitors in total will be operating throughout the country. Despite this, in a recent poll 47% of Hondurans still believed that fraud would take place in the ballot. 

“We're going to take out the dictatorship,” opposition candidate Xiomara Castro promised last week, at a rally for supporters in downtown Tegucigalpa, in a nod to the bitterly disputed re-election of outgoing President Hernandez in 2017. Today will decide whether that promise can be fulfilled.