Junior Mhlongo is the first South African to be injected with a vaccine for Covid-19. Pictures:Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times​
Junior Mhlongo is the first South African to be injected with a vaccine for Covid-19. Pictures:Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times​

SA may not be unique in the snail’s pace of our Covid-19 vaccine rollout, but we’re certainly being left behind by our peers in the largest global mass inoculation programme yet conducted.

More than 450-million people have been vaccinated to date in 161 countries (mostly developed nations). Yet by last weekend, fewer than 200,000 South Africans were on this list.

Of course, the rollout hasn’t been without glitches in Europe. It’s easy, given how chaotic just about every Covid-19 intervention has been in SA, to think we’re a basket-case outlier. But the reality is, from Australia to New York, critics are bemoaning the failures of their governments. This is no surprise. The rollout is the single biggest test of every state today — and many haven’t stepped up. It is scant consolation, but as much as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has fluffed its lines, others have too.

The problem is, there is no room for failure when the stakes are life and death. The time-honoured SA approach of "just getting by" doesn’t cut it.

Unlike others, SA began on the back foot. When Covid-19 arrived, looting, economic degradation and bureaucratic ineptitude were our pre-existing pandemic. We had to limp to the starting blocks.

But then the government bungled again, failing to secure doses when the rest of the world had already done so. Lamentably, we began speaking to manufacturers only this year, months late.

The second problem was that the vaccines we did buy, the Oxford/AstraZeneca product, turned out to be less effective against moderate illness, but still effective against severe illness and death.

But, rather than using them, we sold these 1-million doses instead. Many will say this was short-sighted, since we could have offered it to people, on a voluntary basis, to prevent severe illness and death.

The problem with Covid-19 is that new evidence constantly upends existing beliefs. Results this weekend from the largest study on the AstraZeneca vaccine showed it was 79% effective (and 100% against severe illness) among 32,000 people.

It seems strange that SA, a country with an outsize number of world-class scientists, is trailing so badly. We are, for example, the only country rolling out the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine — thanks to the efforts of professor Glenda Gray.

But it’s undeniable that the pace has been glacial.

SA had administered just 0.31 vaccine doses per 100 people by Monday, according to Our World in Data. This is a fraction of the UK (44 doses per 100 people), the US (37/100) or Israel (112/100 — some Israelis had two).

But SA is also way behind peers such as Brazil (6.6/100 people); Russia (5.7/100); China (5.2/100); and India (3.5/100). On the continent, we’re trailing Rwanda (2.6/100); Ghana (1.35/100); and Senegal (0.95/100).

Even on our better days, SA has vaccinated only 10,000 people a day — a far cry from the 250,000 that some expect to be necessary.

SA’s vaccine rollout will gain pace next month, but last week, deputy health minister Joe Phaahla admitted that SA will probably end up vaccinating fewer than half the 1.5-million health-care workers it had hoped to vaccinate by the end of April. Gray predicts we’ll reach only 500,000 health-care workers by then. This means that as SA approaches a third wave, doctors and nurses remain vulnerable.

Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, co-principal researcher on the J&J vaccine study, points out that "the supply of vaccines has been the bottleneck". Once there’s a consistent supply, this dire picture will change.

For Ramaphosa, desperate to claw back legitimacy for our Covid-19 response, this can’t happen soon enough. He could learn much from Chile, which has punched above its weight and has the world’s third-highest inoculation rate, ahead of the US and UK. The difference is that Chile has had an unwavering focus on delivery.

Ramaphosa has no more space for excuses: he needs to demonstrate that his government’s single most pressing task can actually be achieved.

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