Ramaphosa’s vaccine promises leave more questions than answers

While our government continues to tinker with lockdown levels and impose arbitrary and often ineffectual regulations that continue to wreak havoc on our decimated economy, it has failed to do the one thing that can save both lives and the economy, and that is the acquisition of sufficient vaccines. Just as it failed to use the initial lockdown last year to augment our country’s healthcare, it has now sat back and watched as other countries snapped up all available vaccines, leaving us floundering at the back of the queue.

We welcome his announcement that 20 million vaccines have been secured, but the details are very vague. Who is supplying them? When will they arrive? When will the AU vaccines be coming from and how will they be divided up among countries? Why are we only hearing about the AU programme now for the first time? How exactly will the vaccines be rolled out?

It is simply a lie that government has been negotiating for vaccines for the past six months. If Ramaphosa wants us to believe that, he needs to provide proof, since either he is lying, or the vaccine suppliers are.

For arrival in the first quarter, South Africa has only secured around 2% of the vaccines we need. By mid-2020 already we should have secured supply of all the 40 to 80 million doses of vaccine we need (some brands require a double dose) and we should have, by now, been well underway in our vaccination rollout programme. Instead, our government started scrambling around just ten days ago and secured only 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, enough to vaccinate just 750 000 of our 1 250 000 healthcare workers this quarter. We are one million doses short, even just for the first phase. So much for “acting with urgency”.

No matter how President Ramaphosa spins it, his government has massively and unforgivably dropped the ball on the acquisition of vaccines. The only way to make it up to the country now is to implement an ambitious, honest, transparent acquisition and distribution strategy in which the private sector plays a central role.

We call on Ramaphosa to:

  • Give clarity on where the 20 million doses are coming from and when they will arrive.
  • Pursue bilateral contracts with all reputable suppliers in a transparent manner for the remaining 20 to 60 million vaccines required.
  • Ensure the private sector and provincial governments are allowed to contribute in a positive way to enable the fastest possible acquisition and rollout programme. Both private and public platforms need to be used for the rollout.
  • Ensure that the proper approval processes are followed for the Chinese and Russian suppliers, since this is where the politically connected will most likely be looking to score kickbacks.
  • Give clarity on the Covax arrangement. When can we expect their arrival?
  • Give clarity on the AU pool of 1.5 billion vaccines.

It cannot be stressed enough: vaccines are the only light at the end of this dark and deadly tunnel. Herd immunity will only be reached when two thirds of SA’s population (about 40 million people) are no longer susceptible to the virus. We can do this the deadly, painful, expensive way with indefinite rolling lockdown or we can vaccinate at scale.

Let’s be very clear on the three reasons for the extreme urgency of vaccination:

  1. Lives and livelihoods will be lost unnecessarily to the virus itself.
  2. Lives and livelihoods will be lost unnecessarily to the lockdown restrictions through the massive economic devastation being wrought, which is killing jobs and investment and growing poverty and unemployment to the point where South Africa’s life expectancy will drop dramatically.
  3. The longer and stronger the virus travels through South Africa’s population, the higher the chances of mutation to variants that are resistant to the current vaccines.

No amount of money and resources we throw at vaccination is too much, compared to the cost of lockdown restrictions. By way of example, the estimated cost of a full vaccination programme to herd immunity is somewhere between R8.6 billion and R16 billion depending on which vaccines we procure. Compare this with the cost of the initial hard lockdown which was estimated to lose the SA economy around R13 billion per day.

Some vaccine suppliers took their last orders in June last year. All 300 million of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines being manufactured in Port Elizabeth will be leaving our shores to other countries, since our government showed no interest in acquiring any of them. Israel, for example, is already vaccinating its population at a rate of 100 000 people per day and expects to reach herd immunity by March.

Meanwhile, South Africa is trapped in a terrible, devastating no-win situation, forced to strike a balance between the social harms and benefits of restrictions. And we’re using extremely blunt instruments to do so. This will continue indefinitely. We do not know how long the current wave will last, nor when the next surge will happen, but it will probably be towards winter. The only way out of this dire predicament is to roll out a comprehensive vaccination programme at speed, to enable the country to reach herd immunity as quickly as possible.

Until the vaccine is rolled out, we need to ride the storm as best we can. This means limiting the damage from lockdown restrictions by taking a more differentiated approach. South Africa is effectively bankrupt. We cannot afford to support businesses and jobs affected by restrictions. So, we therefore don’t have the luxury of restricting the good with the bad. We need a differentiated, preventive approach rather than the current blunt instrument of uniform strategy across the country. The blanket ban approach destroys lives and livelihoods unnecessarily and it distracts and diverts law enforcement resources to areas that don’t make a difference at the expense of areas that do.

We suggest the following:

  • Allow provincial/district flexibility between level 2 and level 3, depending on the level of pressure on hospitals.
  • To take pressure off trauma facilities and reduce superspreader events, target alcohol restrictions where the real risks are, but allow low-risk alcohol-related trading.
  • Lift the beach ban to bring relief to coastal economies. The holiday period is over, so the chance of heavy crowding is low.
  • Lift the curfew. This restriction of civil liberties cannot be justified.
  • Further limit gatherings where necessary. Even gatherings of 50 is too high in the high-alert areas.

If the President wants the buy-in of South Africans into this crucial vaccination stage of the fight against Covid-19, then he has to start giving them reasons to trust the government. Sending vans and helicopters full of SAPS officers to arrest a few surfers is not the way to build this trust. It can only be done by demonstrating an honest commitment to the protection of the lives of our citizens. And that can only be achieved through the fast and widespread rollout of vaccines.