A health worker is vaccinated with the J&J Covid-19 vaccine at Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town on February 17 2021. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER
A health worker is vaccinated with the J&J Covid-19 vaccine at Khayelitsha District Hospital in Cape Town on February 17 2021. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ESA ALEXANDER

To the expressions that have emerged since Covid-19 struck the world a year ago we can now add “vaccine apartheid”. It may determine not only who travels to which country, but also restrict movement within internal borders based on whether one has been vaccinated.

Initially, the talk was of vaccine nationalism with rich countries ordering vast amount of supply, sometimes three to four times what their countries would need. The rest have been left to stay unprotected or wait for international organisations, such as the AU and the World Health Organization’s Covax.

SA initially put itself among the latter group and was left lagging behind richer countries that had reached individual agreements with drug companies. After a national outcry, it was shaken out of its complacency, or its misguided belief that it had to go with other developing countries.

South Africans are no different to British or American voters; they expect their government to do whatever it takes to secure their health and safety first.

Eventually, we got going and there was more good news on Tuesday when Business Day reported that SA had reached an agreement with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for the supply of 20-million vaccines starting this month.

SA has also secured 31-million vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, which, significantly, need just a single dose. This means we can look forward with some optimism to getting close to the goal of providing enough jabs to achieve herd immunity by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, it won’t end there as far as vaccine apartheid is concerned. Due to the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant in SA, the country has become something of a pariah, with many, including our former key tourist markets such as the UK, having banned travel to SA or by South Africans to their countries.

When the UK first announced restrictions on travel to SA late in 2020, the government did try to push back against the narrative that SA was responsible for a new and more deadly variant, pointing out that the country was being penalised for having top scientists who identified 501Y.V2, and highlighting its transparency.

The UK is considering a controversial scheme in which the use of vaccine passports can be used to restrict access to sporting events, pubs, and some services, something critics have said would be discriminatory. It’s only an extension of a system that is been increasingly used to regulate international travel, and there is unlikely to be relief on that front any time soon.

With regards to international travel, SA has not been strong on defending itself. It could take a leaf out of Kenya’s book, which offered a hard-hitting statement after the UK added it to a list of “red” countries subject to the strictest travel restrictions, though imposing retaliatory measures on British travellers is counterproductive.  

A complicating issue for SA-UK travel is that the latter’s impressive inoculation drive has been largely dependent on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the one SA decided against using.

With some in the UK calling for tighter restrictions on travel with other European countries because the “SA variant” is becoming more prevalent there, we may have shot ourselves in the foot in talking up the danger of the variant and its potential resistance to vaccines.

The idea that “nobody wins the race until everyone wins” has not resonated with rich countries that cling to the notion that inoculating themselves and closing borders is a viable strategy. It clearly isn’t in the long term and they won’t be left untouched if the virus is allowed to mutate elsewhere and make current vaccines ineffective.

In the face of that discrimination, we need not stay still. In a perfect world, we would be fighting to end vaccine apartheid for all, but for now, SA should be fighting its corner harder. And it can do that by getting a vaccination drive that is well advanced by the busy tourism period, then aggressively make the point that SA is safe for travel.

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