Covid-19 vaccine registration drive in South Africa. Mukurukuru Media/shutterstock
Covid-19 vaccine registration drive in South Africa. Mukurukuru Media/shutterstock

The pandemic has offered stark lessons on the nature of global citizenship, and a growing acknowledgment that the world’s only safe if everyone’s safe. Yet so far, the COVID-19 vaccine story has been a case study in inequity, a shaded map of the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Eighty-five percent of shots to date have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.3% have made their way into the arms of people in low-income countries.

In Africa—a continent with a population of 750 million—less than 2% have received a single dose, compared to the global average of nearly 14%.

The inoculation program has been challenged by interruptions in supply, vaccine hesitancy and efficacy concerns against a rising B.1.351 variant dubbed “Beta.” Rollout and delivery glitches continue to pose barriers, even as a third wave spreads across the continent. Recently, the WHO reported a disturbing upward trend in cases in 14 African countries, eight of which rose by more than 30%. Week-over-week, Uganda recorded a 131% rise.

One of the world’s largest global philanthropies, the Mastercard Foundation, recently stepped up to change that trajectory with a three-year, total $1.3 billion partnership with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), one of the single largest commitments to fighting COVID to date.

The funding isn’t coming out of left field. The foundation has worked in Africa for more than a decade, and has made long and deep investments in helping young Africans find their place in the world’s fastest-growing economy. Now that the pandemic’s hit, it’s expanding that focus to save both lives and livelihoods.

A global giant

Sometimes conflated with the financial services company Mastercard, the Mastercard Foundation was created in 2006 by Mastercard International, endowed with proceeds from its initial public offering. According to the foundation, it has assets of $39 billion and has made more than $4.4 billion in commitments to date, making it one of the largest funders in the world. By comparison, the globe’s largest health research funder, Wellcome, reported assets of $39.4 billion in 2020, and distributes roughly $1 billion a year.

While the U.S.-based corporation runs its own philanthropic programs, the Canadian-based foundation is a separate entity with independent governance. Its board comprises notable leaders like Africa’s “Iron Lady,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Master of University College Oxford Baroness Valerie Amos. The former president of PepsiCo, Inc., Zein Abdalla, serves as chair.

The foundation’s whopping commitment to mitigating COVID now sits behind only MacKenzie Scott’s in sheer size, and aligns with both the geography and intent of its giving strategies.

Mastercard in Africa

The foundation has focused its funding on Africa for more than a decade and currently works in 33 countries, including Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Its approach to giving “all people an equal chance to succeed” uses tactics that help economically disadvantaged African youth “find opportunities to move themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty to a better life.”

Its signature Young Africa Works program aims to help the 375 million young people who are expected to enter Africa’s workforce by 2030—numbers that are projected to swell Africa’s workforce to more than 1 billion people, making it the largest and fastest growing in the world.

The program is on the ground in seven African countries, working to meet the ambitious goal of helping 30 million youth find meaningful work. Country-specific strategies range from boosting the quality of education and vocational training to matching technology skills with employer needs, and connecting start-ups to financial tools.

By youth, the foundation means young Africans between the ages of 12 and 35, representing all levels of education, life experience, gender and geography. That said, nearly 70% of the cohort will be women.

Over the years, the foundation has gained important insights on building sustainable partnerships in the region. Chief Program Officer Peter Materu said Mastercard has “learned the value of co-creation and listening, and the importance of aligning activities with the national priorities of government,” a takeaway that’s evident in its pandemic partnership with the Africa CDC.

A matter of lives

Last April, Mastercard Foundation made its first moves against COVID on the continent, with a COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Program aimed at meeting urgent needs and economic recovery two ways: supporting first responders and healthcare workers, and getting emergency funding to students.

The latest announcement builds on its second investment, a $40 million partnership it developed with the Africa CDC in June 2020, which supported Africa’s testing accelerator, or PACT.

The new $1.3 billion Saving Lives and Livelihoods initiative aligns with the African Union’s COVID-19 Vaccine Development and Access Strategy to vaccinate at least 60% of the population by 2022. Investments support COVAX, the WHO-backed global access facility created to ensure fair and equitable vaccine distribution, and AVATT, the 10-member COVID-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team charged with securing sufficient and safe doses.

Saving Lives and Livelihoods funding will underwrite the cost of vaccines for at least 50 million Africans and support the deployment of millions more through procurement and logistics, scaling vaccination centers, and medical workforce training. The work is also expected to boost Africa’s long-term health security by strengthening the Africa CDC’s capacity to meet this and future health crises.

By nature, viruses mutate. So on the science side, tools are in place to manage adverse events, including genomic sequencing to identify variants, and pharmacovigilance, the practice of monitoring drug side effects. Communications outreach will also engage communities in overcoming vaccine hesitancy.

That will be critical against rising safety concerns as new jabs reach the market. Already, AstraZeneca had to modify its vaccine to better target the Beta variant, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines from the U.S. have been halted twice for review.

A matter of livelihoods

The Mastercard Foundation’s response also incorporates the economics of an inclusive recovery.

The investment comes as the pandemic prompted Africa’s first economic recession in 25 years, a turn the African Development Bank warns may erase two decades of hard-won gains and drive 39 million Africans into extreme poverty this year.

Rather than representing a shift in the foundation’s core strategies, Mastercard sees its most recent investments as an enabler of its youth employment goals, saying widespread vaccination is key to ensuring economic recovery and growth conditions.

Developing the human capital required to manufacture and deploy vaccines in-country will also act as a contributor to long-term economic growth, factors foundation President and CEO Reeta Roy said will create work opportunities in the health sector and beyond.

Peers on the continent

As previously covered in Inside Philanthropy, Africa has attracted the support of major players like ELMA, Bloomberg, Rockefeller and Gates for years —work that’s accelerated during the pandemic.

Last May, ELMA Group of Foundations pledged roughly $137 million to fight COVID-19 in Africa—a number it now expects to exceed. That’s in addition to its ongoing work, which, according to the funder, puts it among Africa’s largest private philanthropies.

Like the Mastercard Foundation, government partnerships are central to its support strategies. The largest of its investments in South Africa, nearly $17 million USD, supported a single effort, the South African Solidarity Response Fund, which backs national priorities and helps mobilize civic resources.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has been on the ground in Africa since 2017 through its Partnership for Healthy Cities, a collaboration between Bloomberg, the WHO and the global health organization Vital Strategies that was originally established to prevent noncommunicable diseases and injuries.

Bloomberg’s funding on the continent accounts for the lion’s share of its $40 million COVID-19 Global Response Initiative. Thirty-two million was deployed to Africa; the balance went to WHO for global work. Currently, Bloomberg Philanthropies is partnering with the WHO, Vital Strategies and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation to reinforce public health systems and slow the spread.

The Rockefeller Foundation has been in Africa since 1966, and directs nearly a third of its resources there. Last April, the foundation made a commitment of at least $50 million over two years to help partners in Asia, Africa and the U.S. battle COVID-19.

In February, the foundation announced a three-year, billion-dollar pledge to “help end the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa and for us all.” In June, it added another $35 million to response efforts in Africa, this time for testing and vaccine equity, food insecurity and renewable energy.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made its first grant in Ethiopia more than two decades ago, and opened an office there in 2012. Its $1.8 billion global pandemic defense works to slow transmission and develop therapeutics and vaccines, with an emphasis on ensuring equitable access.

In December 2020, Gates announced a $47.5 million investment in country and regional responses to rising cases in Africa and South Asia, and made up to $75 million in financing available from its Strategic Investment Fund for manufacturing, treatments and diagnostics in low- and middle-income countries. Much of that work also includes partnering with government and regional agencies.

Moving ahead

Together, COVAX and AVATT are on track to deliver vaccines to roughly half of Africa’s population. Mastercard Foundation funding is expected to reach an additional 10 to 15% of the population—or between 125 million and 188 million Africans.

But that’s still a long way from the finish line. The cost of realizing the African Union’s goal is estimated at $16 billion.

Support is coming in. Africa CDC Director John Nkengasong reports commitments from the Skoll Foundation and Open Society Foundations. And Mastercard President and CEO Reeta Roy said she’s encouraged by recent commitments from the U.S., U.K. and E.U.

Still, the problem’s not going away. There are currently 5 million confirmed cases across the continent. Roy hopes others will join them, calling on “governments and global funders to redouble efforts to save lives and livelihoods in Africa.” More action, she hopes, will build on momentum.