Vials containing CoronaVac, Sinovac Biotech's vaccine. Picture: REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli
Vials containing CoronaVac, Sinovac Biotech's vaccine. Picture: REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa belatedly provided a skeleton explanation of SA’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout, but it was difficult to get too excited given the glaring holes in the plan.

For example, Ramaphosa revealed that through the Covax initiative, SA will get vaccines for about 6-million people — yet he reported that scientists say we need to vaccinate 40-million people (67% of the population) to reach herd immunity.

"While there are several promising negotiations with a number of different manufacturers that still need to be concluded, we have to date secured 20-million doses to be delivered mainly in the first half of the year," he said.

Besides the vagueness of "mainly in the first half of the year", how do all those numbers relate to each other? Given that the AstraZeneca vaccine, which SA is apparently getting, requires two vaccinations per person, does this mean we’ll only get enough for 10-million people? And, if so, what’s the plan to find vaccines for another 30-million people?

Well, who knows — since Ramaphosa can’t be bothered to take questions from the media at his "family gatherings". Instead, SA is apparently meant to find solace in empty platitudes, like how there has been "tremendous work to secure the vaccine". Even Donald Trump held Covid-19 briefings at which he took questions. Why can’t Ramaphosa?

What he did attempt to do, though, was counter the "disinformation and conspiracy theories" around vaccines. This is not an insubstantial issue: an Ipsos poll in mid-December found that 47% of South Africans said they would refuse to get a Covid vaccine, were it available.

Ramaphosa pointed out that vaccines have been used to rid society of diseases like smallpox and polio, and no vaccine will be approved by the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority unless it meets "stringent scientific standards".

Unfortunately, it is those closest to the president who are undermining his message the most.

Last week, Zingiswa Losi, president of Cosatu — the labour union he helped to create — said she doubted the vaccine as it was "not organic". "As African people, we have our indigenous herbs," she said. Because beetroot worked so well for HIV/Aids.

And ANC national executive committee member Tony Yengeni said he would never accept a "stupid vaccine" for his family. Were this not coming from someone on the ANC’s NEC, you’d think it’d be enough for natural selection to take its course. But from someone so influential within the ruling party, it wholly undermines Ramaphosa’s messaging.

Research shows that conspiracies spread fastest when they’re amplified by someone in a position of power. It may just be a coincidence, but the poll showing 47% of South Africans did not trust the vaccine was staged days after chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng spoke of a "devil" vaccine as having the potential to "corrupt the DNA of our people". In October, the percentage was 32%.

But the most unhinged lie came from ANC eThekwini councillor Sfiso Mngadi, who simultaneously denied the existence of Covid-19 while arguing it was being transmitted from 5G towers. "White people were vaccinated about five months ago. There was a truck distributing the vaccine in boxes, and white people from all over the province … went there to receive these boxes," he said.

It’s a scandalously ignorant comment from a public representative. Some basic research would reveal to Mngadi that lightbulbs and even TV remotes emit far more non-ionising radiation than a 5G tower.

And yet in March, the government announced new rules under the Disaster Management Act making it an offence to publish statements with "the intention to deceive about Covid-19, the Covid-19 infection status of any person, or any measure taken by the government to address Covid-19". The penalty: a fine or jail for up to six months.

If Ramaphosa wants to show these rules aren’t just empty words that don’t apply to the elite, comrades in his own party, such as Mngadi, should be feeling the sting for fuelling insane conspiracies.

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