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‘Pricing out the poor’: Fears over COVID-19 vaccine access as Kenya lets in private sector

PUBLISHED: Thu, 25 Mar 2021 17:13:40 GMT

* Official says private sector allowed to procure vaccines

* Government will not put price cap on inoculation

* Campaigners warn the poor will be left out

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, March 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Kenya will let private hospitals charge for COVID-19 vaccinations and will not set a price limit on their cost – a measure charities warned would “price out the poor” and create greater inequalities in access.

The East African nation of more than 50 million people has so far received one million vaccine doses through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility, and plans to procure another 11 million for the public sector in the coming months.

Patrick Amoth, acting director general at the Health Ministry, said on Thursday private hospitals would be permitted to import coronavirus vaccines, subject to the necessary approvals, and offer their own inoculation service.

“The private sector plays a critical role in health services and they cannot be excluded from the provision of vaccination services, which is part of the routine services that they do provide,” Amoth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“They have been excluded so far because of the limited supply of vaccines, but as more vaccines come onto the platform, definitely they will have a role,” he said, adding that the private sector provided almost 48% of health services in Kenya.

Amoth said the government would not put a price cap on vaccines and would allow “market forces” to determine the cost. Those who cannot afford the vaccine will be able to get it free-of-charge from public hospitals, he added.

“We believe that if we allow many players in the market, the rules of supply and demand dictate that the prices will be reasonable,” he said.

Two vaccines – the AstraZeneca vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V – have so far been granted emergency use by Kenya’s Pharmacy and Poisons Board.

Health ministry officials said on Wednesday private players would need to be granted registration by the board and that any vaccines entering the country will have met approval requirements.

‘FREE FOR ALL’

Charities campaigning for equitable access of the vaccine criticised the decision, saying that placing procurement in the hands of the private sector would result in only the well-off being vaccinated.

“The move will be pricing out the poor,” said Joab Okanda, Pan Africa Just Economies and Inequality lead for Oxfam International.

“The public sector is not in a position to procure enough vaccines itself, so we will be leaving the vaccines to only those with money. Vaccines should be supplied by the government and be made free for all.”

Opening up the market to private players also raised safety concerns, said Okanda, as it would encourage unauthorised suppliers to sell unapproved vaccines on the black market.

Kenya recently extended a nationwide overnight curfew for a further 60 days as the country battles a third wave of infections.

East Africa’s biggest economy has so far recorded more than 120,000 coronavirus cases and 2,000 deaths, and positive test rates have risen to 16.5% in March compared with January’s 2%.

Njoki Njehu, Africa coordinator for the Fight Inequality Alliance, described Kenya’s vaccine move was “the worst decision the government has ever made” and dismissed claims that the cost of the vaccine would be reasonable.

“It’s ridiculous to believe the vaccines will be affordable. Private companies exist to profit and so the costs will naturally be high,” said Njehu.

“Kenyans have already suffered enough during this pandemic due to the lockdowns. It is the most marginalised who have lost the most. Bringing in the private sector will only exacerbate inequalities in our society.”

The Association of Private Hospitals in Kenya did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Due to limited supply of the vaccines, most countries have restricted their private sector from procurement of vaccines.

Pakistan, one of the first countries in the world to allow private imports of COVID-19 vaccines, said it will receive shipments of China’s CanSino Biologics Inc’s vaccine this week.

Kenya plans to vaccinate 1.25 million people – including frontline heath workers, the elderly and teachers – by June and another 9.6 million in the next phase.

The Health Ministry said earlier this month the country plans to vaccinate about 15 million people nationwide by the end of June 2023. (Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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