Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Union federation Cosatu and its health affiliate have criticised the government’s absence of a detailed vaccine rollout strategy, saying the attempt by health minister Zweli Mkhize on Sunday to persuade the public that the government had the matter in hand was unconvincing.

“It is clear that we are dealing with colossal mismanagement of the vaccine procurement process and front-line workers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities will pay with their lives,” Cosatu said in a statement.

Many union members are front-line health workers or work in institutions such as prisons, schools and policing and are at high risk of contracting the virus that causes Covid-19.

Mkhize and top officials held a media briefing on Sunday to respond to criticism that SA has been left behind in the vaccine race by failing to place pre-orders with pharmaceutical companies during the development phase. The government has, in the past four weeks, initiated negotiations with vaccine manufacturers but is yet to secure a single direct order.

The only firm promise of a vaccine so far is via the Covax pooled arrangement established for poor countries. SA will receive sufficient vaccine to inoculate 10% of the population, but only by April at the earliest.

“A solid and convincing vaccine acquisition and distribution strategy should have been developed earlier and by now. The government should be starting the rollout process and not making vague commitments,” the federation said.

Mkhize and officials gave details of the various structures that will govern vaccine acquisition as well as committees established with the private sector to facilitate cross-subsidisation.

“What the nation witnessed in [the] minister of health’s incomprehensible briefing was of a leadership that has been caught napping in the face of a deadly pandemic ravaging the country. What the minister presented is bunk and the country should not accept it. South Africans are familiar with the egregious policy failures with deadly consequences as we saw with the mismanagement of the Aids pandemic,” said Cosatu.

A plan with time lines and details of the logistics to conduct the actual vaccinations was required but was not presented, it said.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), whose more than 250,000 members are on the front line, was also scathing of the lack of detail provided by Mkhize.

“The plan unveiled by the minister was very scant on details and very ambiguous on the timelines, especially on delivery dates. The plan by the minister did not have a clear logistical rollout plan for vaccination, for example in terms of training of the clinicians to vaccinate, geographic layout of the vaccination especially for the vulnerable cohorts, etc.

“As Nehawu, we believe that negotiations with vaccine manufacturers should have started long ago,” it said.

Solidarity added its voice to the protest on Monday, demanding that the government accelerate the provision of vaccines to health workers rather than wait for the Covax process. Solidarity also sounded the alarm on the government’s plan to procure the entire vaccination stock itself.

“The state cannot be in control while the private sector provides the finances. The state has a poor management record. During the pandemic, the government has repeatedly proven that it is not competent to take the lead. It is this incompetence that has led to the delay in obtaining the vaccine, and the government should be kept as far away from this process as possible,” it said.

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) called on mining employers to directly procure the vaccine for employees. The mining union said it was now clear that the public health system would not be able to commence with vaccination until the middle of 2021 and that therefore “the private sector should step up to the plate”.

Amcu appeals to all mining houses to dedicate the necessary resources to procure the vaccine as soon as possible. We further propose that this rollout of vaccination should include the communities surrounding mining operations, so as to curb the risk of possible contamination in and from communities,” it said.

Department of health deputy director-general Anban Pillay has said that SA will have “a single procurement point” that will be managed by national government and then distributed to both the public and private sector.

Minerals Council SA spokesperson Charmane Russell said the industry is engaging with the government to “support and align with its plans in respect of a vaccine rollout”.

“It goes without saying that the mining industry will fall in line with priority guidelines adopted in the country as a whole. It should be noted that the government also made clear that it will procure all Covid-19 vaccines itself for distribution — private sector organisations or medical schemes will not be permitted to procure independently for their own members,” Russell said.

“The industry’s focus right now is on prevention of Covid-19, which includes intensive screening and testing where required, maintaining appropriate hygiene and social distancing measures, as well as education to support behaviour change. A vaccine is not an immediate panacea for the country and the industry — vaccines will not be freely available for some time,” she said.

patonc@businesslive.co.za

Update: January 4 2021
This story has been updated to include comment from Minerals Council SA.

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