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COVID-stricken African nation brings in Israelis to prepare its vaccine strategy

In first of several anticipated aid missions drawing on Israeli expertise, team from nonprofit IsraAID is in Eswatini formulating immunization rollout plan

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A member of the nonprofit IsraAID (left) speaks to residents of Eswatini at a hospital in the south African country (courtesy)
A member of the nonprofit IsraAID (left) speaks to residents of Eswatini at a hospital in the south African country (courtesy)

A Tel Aviv-based nonprofit has launched the first of several missions to help poor countries build their COVID-19 vaccination program, drawing on Israel’s success.

A seven-member team from IsraAID landed in the small African state of Eswatini on Monday for a two-week visit. The delegation was invited by the government of the country, formerly known as Swaziland, which has vaccines in the pipeline and wanted help with logistics and public education ahead of the rollout.

“Israel’s vaccine success story has already reached here, and people really welcome and appreciate our effort,” Molly Bernstein, a member of the team, told The Times of Israel from Eswatini, expressing confidence that IsraAID will replicate her mission in other countries.

She said that work began minutes after the team landed on Monday afternoon, and has already involved visits to numerous health centers and meetings with health officials.

“We’re seeing exactly what the local health system looks like so we can leverage its capabilities to ensure the best possible vaccine rollout,” Bernstein said.

The IsraAID team meets with members of the Eswatini health ministry on March 9, 2021 (courtesy of IsraAID)

She added that her team is also providing guidance on other aspects of COVID-19 policy, beyond vaccines.

Eswatini, which borders South Africa and Mozambique and has a population of just over a million, suffers from the highest COVID-19 death rates in Africa and the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Nearly 40 percent of Eswatini’s population live on less than $1.90 per day.

Bernstein said she has encountered citizens who are reeling from the pandemic, especially in light of the December death of prime minister Ambrose Dlamini, four weeks after he tested positive for coronavirus. “When you have someone so front and center who dies of the virus it leaves people scared and lowers morale,” she said.

The mission is funded by the South Africa-based Jewish billionaire Nathan Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.

IsraAID spokesman Ethan Schwartz told The Times of Israel that it represents “a first step in IsraAID’s global vaccine initiative,” adding: “The idea is that this will serve as a pilot for us so that in coming months we can support other countries in vaccine rollout, taking knowledge we got from Israel’s vaccine rollout and using it to support other countries.”

He did not offer details of which other countries are likely to receive IsraAID help.

The nonprofit’s CEO, Yotam Polizer, said that its vaccine work represents an effort to make immunization more equitable internationally. “Vaccines are crucial to global efforts to end the pandemic, yet many countries across the Global South are struggling to access the vaccines they need to protect their populations,” he said.

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