One year of lockdown, President Ramaphosa owes SA answers to these critical questions

Tomorrow marks exactly one year since President Ramaphosa announced that our country was going into lockdown in order to buy time to augment our healthcare system and put in place a track and trace programme. This preparation time was initially going to be three weeks, which became five weeks, then months, and eventually a full year. After all this time, we are no more prepared to deal with Covid-19 than we were back then. If anything, we are worse off thanks to a catastrophic failure to procure vaccines.

One year on we are still using lockdowns – or the threat of lockdowns – to slow the spread, as our healthcare capacity is nowhere near what it should be, our track and trace system never properly got off the ground and our vaccine rollout is still non-existent. According to the Ministerial Advisory Committee’s Ian Sanne, “Delaying the next surge in coronavirus infections would buy more time to prepare the health system and vaccinate vulnerable people,” said committee member Ian Sanne. A year later we are still talking of “buying more time” through lockdowns.

All that this ongoing lockdown – under the cover of the indefinitely-renewed Disaster Management Act – has done is to transfer government’s responsibilities onto the citizens, and make them pay a heavy price for government’s failures. That price was confirmed in a report just published by the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), where it was found that the consequences of lockdowns are especially severe and long-lasting for the most vulnerable South Africans. According to the report, half the people living in informal housing on the fringes of South Africa’s urban centres lost their main source of income, two-thirds of them ran out of money for food and one third went hungry during the initial lockdown.

The survivalist strategies of poor South Africans are severely undermined by constant economic disruptions. The cost of any further lockdown will far outweigh the benefit, so other than restrictions on large gatherings – and particularly indoor gatherings – there cannot be justification for any escalation of our lockdown levels.

Using lockdowns to “buy time” comes at a cost that our government, secure in their own guaranteed income, just doesn’t seem to grasp. But this is made far worse by the fact that the only way out of this predicament is a fast and comprehensive vaccine rollout, and this has been completely botched. We still don’t have a rollout plan and we still don’t have the vaccines for such a plan, and this is entirely due to the fact that government only woke up six months after the rest of the world, and then proceeded to blame everyone except itself for this deadly vaccine procurement failure.

To cover up this failure, government is deliberately using vague messaging around its vaccine procurement process that gives no real answers and is simply meant to placate the public and the media. For this reason I have submitted a set of precise questions to the President for which we want precise answers. If we expect citizens to buy into this vaccination effort, they are going to have to trust government, and the only way this will happen is through full transparency and accountability. I have asked the President to respond to these questions by Friday 2 April.

The DA is also considering its legal options to place further pressure on government in this regard and compel them to play open cards. South Africans are heading into a potential third wave of transmissions with no hard information. Even if it is bad news, people need to know what is going on. Vague terms like vaccines “secured for arrival in the third quarter” are essentially meaningless. People need honest answers to these critical questions. I have urged President Ramaphosa to take personal control of this process and to inject a sense of urgency into it. He needs to ensure that there is a workable plan. And he needs to be open and clear with the public, to win back their trust in this most critical of all programmes.

This is the full list of questions we submitted to the President:

  1. Which vaccines have been ordered? How many doses of each vaccine? What are the actual confirmed dates for delivery? Please provide receipts and contracts.
  2. How many calls have you made personally to vaccine suppliers? Which suppliers? What was the outcome?
  3. Please provide proof and dates of all correspondence between your administration (or those acting on behalf of your administration) and each of the vaccine suppliers that have been approached in attempts to procure vaccines.
  4. Please explain why South African production facilities in Nelson Mandela Bay are being used to produce 300 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Aspen Pharmacare and yet SA is not going to get a single one of these doses? Why are we not front of the queue since they are being produced here?
  5. When will your government publish a detailed, implementable rollout plan?
  6. Why was no detailed rollout plan prepared last year? And why is there no detailed rollout plan as yet?
  7. When will government’s official rollout begin? The current “rollout”, as you know, is merely an extension of an existing Johnson & Johnson trial around existing trial sites, and is being run by trial scientists, not by your government.
  8. Why has the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still not been approved for general rollout in South Africa? Why is it taking so long, given that the US Food and Drug Administration has approved it?
  9. Why was the AstraZeneca vaccine sold without being offered to high-risk people on a volunteer basis, given that high-risk individuals have no other options going into the third wave, and given that the AstraZeneca vaccine would still have given them protection from severe disease and death, even if it doesn’t stop transmission? Why did you go against the advice of Professor Shabir Mahdi, who ran the clinical trials for the AstraZeneca vaccine here in South Africa, and of the World Health Organisation?
  10. By which date will all 1.5 million healthcare workers be vaccinated? (Phase 1)
  11. By which date will all those in the high-risk group be vaccinated? (Phase 2)
  12. By which date will the vaccination be available to the general public?
  13. By which date will 67% of the South African population be vaccinated against Covid-19?
  14. In your State of the Nation Address last month, you acknowledged that the vaccine programme is South Africa’s top priority. Why then have you delegated this most important of all programmes to your Deputy President, who is widely known to be corrupt?
  15. What has the Deputy President done so far to expedite the process of vaccine procurement and rollout?

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