President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses SA on developments in relation to the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, on January 11 2021. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses SA on developments in relation to the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, on January 11 2021. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa will have to forgive us for not being impressed by the government’s vaccination strategy, which reads more like an exercise in damage control.

Before their retreat, which was brought about by intense criticism from scientists and civil society, officials at the department of health were telling South Africans that vaccines were not a silver bullet. On Monday, the president told the country that the government had always said they were a game changer, and now we are supposed to believe it has been involved in intense discussions with manufacturers over the past six months.

What Ramaphosa’s words on Monday will not change is that SA has  not vaccinated a single person so far, and we are not any clearer about when that will happen despite promises that initial supplies are on the way.

The US, a country led by one of the world’s chief Covid denialists, at least for a few more days, started its process in December and has now reached about 10-million people. Israel says it is on track to inoculate everyone over 16 years by the end of March. Leaving aside its racist decision to exclude Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, this has been an impressive achievement. They are not alone. Bloomberg reports that more than 29-million shots have been administered in 43 countries to date.

Among emerging markets, even Argentina, the chronic basket case that is synonymous with financial crises and debt defaults, has rolled out a programme that has reached 0.2% of its population, according to the Bloomberg data. So it is more than a bit disingenuous for our government to cry poverty. We would hope our legislators will be filled with some embarrassment when the necessary processes are done to facilitate a flow of another R10bn to SAA.

Even the president’s assurance on Monday that 20-million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been secured raised more questions than answers, for he provided no detail on where these will come from.

The government has so far clinched only two vaccine deals: one with the international financing vehicle Covax, which at this stage has committed to providing SA with enough to cover 10% of the population, with the first shipments due in April at the earliest. Another, smaller but more immediate deal with the Serum Institute of India (SII) slated to provide its first tranche of shots later this month.

Assuming Covax sends vaccines that require booster shots, that accounts for 12-million doses. The arrangement with the SII provides another 1.5-million. So where then will the remaining 6.5-million promised come from? A pharmaceutical company? The AU? Or a bilateral agreement with a government that has racked up more stock than it needs? It is as clear as mud, and no way to inspire confidence in the government’s capacity to swiftly and effectively roll out a huge immunisation programme.

The incompetence and corruption that marked the initial response to the pandemic and the acquisition of personal protective equipment are reason to be sceptical that this government can pull off what Ramaphosa said would be “the largest and most complex logistical undertaking in our country’s history”.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize has sought to use this crisis to argue why SA needs to move ahead with National Health Insurance, the government’s ambitious plan for universal health coverage. The level of disorganisation demonstrated to get even this far with securing Covid-19 vaccines, and that the government had to get the Solidarity Fund to pay its initial deposit to the Covax scheme, would seem to seriously undermine that argument.

While Ramaphosa’s decision to keep the country on level 3 of the lockdown and maintain the ban on alcohol sales was not a surprise, another serious failure has been the lack of financial support for affected workers.

In the first phase, the government got credit for its response to the health challenge even as it drove the economy into the ground. With its approach to vaccines, this time it is falling short on both scores.

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