Friday marked the first of a few unhappy anniversaries with regards to the country’s encounter with Covid-19. It was on March 5 that the first case was detected in SA. Three weeks later the country was in total lockdown.
On the economic and health front, the impact has been devastating. On Saturday, the number of confirmed cases stood at about 1.5-million, with more than 50,000 people having died.
But official figures for deaths from Covid-19, as in many other countries, underestimate the true toll of the disease, and the Medical Research Council estimates SA has recorded more than 145,000 excess deaths during the pandemic, reflecting deaths directly caused by the virus and collateral deaths due to restricted access to health services.
The economic devastation has been all there to see, with the fourth-quarter Stats SA data out in February showing that the number of people without jobs jumped almost 1.4-million from a year earlier, pushing the joblessness rate to a record 32.5%.
On the medical front, the situation could have also been a lot worse. What happened after Covid-19 ceased being an isolated incident in China but a pandemic that closed down much of the global economy was nothing short of miraculous. Global pharmaceutical companies embarked on a race to develop a vaccine, and within 12 months the vaccine made by Pfizer was being rolled out in the UK, marking the fastest vaccine development.
Governments — here and in European nations — have rightly come in for criticism for a slow rollout of vaccines. But that sense of despair should be tempered by the fact that 12 months ago it would have been unthinkable that by now SA health workers would be getting vaccinated.
To think that about three months ago government officials were lecturing South Africans that vaccines were no “silver bullet”. Which was of course nonsense. Getting as many people as possible inoculated as soon as possible is our best hope against a damaging cycle of illness, death and lockdowns.
SA’s new infections might have dropped enough for the government to return the country to level 1 of the lockdown, but this is no time to be complacent. Soon people will start gathering for their Easter holidays. While we welcome the decision to open up more of the economy, allowing indoor gatherings of up to 100 people is baffling. We noted the same in early December, before the arrival of a second wave and much tighter restrictions as the country headed towards Christmas.
After the Easter period, we will then start the countdown to the winter months, when the country will be more vulnerable as people congregate more indoors. It’s worrying that the government hasn’t come up with any sort of road plan about how to protect the wider population ahead of this eventuality.
It still hasn’t said who will be eligible for the second phase of vaccinations, after it has decided it has covered enough health workers, or even when this will start. Very few people believe that it will reach 67% of the population as previously indicated. Comments by Barry Schoub, the chair of health minister Zweli Mkhize’s advisory committee, that a “technical committee” is still grappling with the details, are not reassuring.
Then there’s the issue of supply. The government has indicated that it has secured enough doses to achieve its aims. The big question, of course, is when? Many numbers have been thrown about — 11-million committed by Johnson & Johnson and 20-million in the offing from Pfizer — but it will make a big difference whether SA gets them well before the next surge in infections or in the second half of the year.
With the global scramble for vaccines and leaders in rich countries under pressure to scale up their programmes, securing enough and applying them to the population soon enough to minimise a winter wave will be no easy task. The government needs to show it has a plan.
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