It is time for government to acknowledge failure and accept help

Note to Editors: The following speech was delivered by the Leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen MP, today in Cape Town during his address to the nation.

Attention Editors: Letters to all SAHPRA-approved vaccine manufacturers can be found here, here and here.

Fellow citizens,

Before we talk about the crucial issue of vaccines, I am sure most of you would have heard the news that the Constitutional Court has just found former President Jacob Zuma guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to 15 months in prison.

This is one of the most important ConCourt judgments in the history of our democracy because it confirms that no one can stand above the law in South Africa. Not even a former President who still enjoys strong support within the ruling party.

Mr Zuma – who has steadfastly dodged his day in court for well over a decade while claiming all the while that his day in court is all he wanted – has finally run out of runway.

This is a major day for the DA. For 12 years we have pursued the case against Jacob Zuma relentlessly. We did so, often with very little public and media support, because we knew it was the right thing to do.

Long before Zuma was public enemy number 1, we rang the alarm that he was destroying the institutions of democracy and subverting the constitutional order, to enrich his friends and family.

For years he was protected and cosseted by the ANC. For years they defended him, knowing full well what he was doing to South Africa.

We may have many other challenges as a country right now, but this judgment has struck a crucial blow for equality before the law, without which no democracy can prosper.

Fellow citizens,

As I speak to you, there are many of you who are facing tremendous personal battles as a third wave of Covid infections surges through parts of the country.

Many of you have lost loved ones in recent times, and have done so under extremely harrowing circumstances that have made grieving and saying goodbye very hard.

Many of you have family at home or in hospitals right now who are fighting this disease, and the news that hospitals in Gauteng are running at full capacity and are struggling to keep ahead of the wave must be extremely distressing.

Many more of you are facing a scary and uncertain future, having lost your income and the means to look after your families. Those working in industries that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lockdown restrictions must face every announcement by the President with a terrible sense of dread.

These are extremely difficult times for all of us. The worst part is not knowing when it will all end, and when we will be able to carry on living normal lives without the constant fear and uncertainty that has settled on our daily routines.

But we have no choice here. We have to be strong and we have to believe that we will beat this virus. That’s the only way through all of this.

Each one of us needs to find the strength to do whatever we can to win this fight.

Whether this means working on treatments, cures and vaccines, whether it is looking after the sick, whether it is helping take care of the vulnerable and hungry, or whether it is simply doing your personal bit to stay sanitised, masked and distanced, we all have a crucial part to play.

We dare not become fatigued by the relentless onslaught, and therefore complacent. Because even if we were to relent, the virus won’t. We cannot give it any more of a foot in the door than it already has.

But beating this virus also means being extremely honest and critical about the things that have and haven’t worked in the fight so far. Because if we don’t change these things we will make no progress.

We now have 15 months of interventions and measures to look back on, and this gives us a very clear picture of what we could have done differently and done better.

Looking back, we can say with absolute certainty where government should have spent the bulk of its time, effort and money to make the biggest impact, and that is by increasing hospital capacity, procuring enough vaccines early on, and formulating a proper vaccine rollout plan that would make the most of all available resources.

Those things would have significantly protected society, but government did none of them. As a result, we have one of the least vaccinated populations in the entire world facing one of the steepest waves of infections, in the middle of winter, without sufficient hospital beds.

Looking back, even our government should concede that many of the measures introduced in the name of fighting the spread of Covid did nothing of the sort, and only ended up compounding misery by destroying entire economic sectors.

Our tourism and hospitality industries are now into their second year of severely compromised operations, with no help whatsoever from government. Hundreds of thousands of families have been left with no income.

And, knowing all of this, the President has just done it again by shutting down the liquor and restaurant trade. The only reason he finds himself backed into this corner is because he didn’t do his actual job. So let us not give him a free pass on this and say he had no choice.

Looking back, we should never have sold those one million Astra Zeneca vaccines, nor cancelled the remaining 500,000 on the order, nor forgone the option of a further 1.5 million.

Not only would those vaccines have helped to prevent death and serious illness among vulnerable populations, we now know that they would have offered protection against the Delta variant.

The DA called on government to hold onto these shots and immediately roll them out to vulnerable population groups. And not only the DA. Many scientists, including those at the World Health Organisation, were saying the same thing: Don’t give away your vaccines because they will save lives.

Government always claims to follow the science. Well, the science says we should have used them.

Looking back, we should never have placed all our eggs in the Covax basket. For the entire second half of 2020, this was government’s sole plan and they turned their backs on the vaccine manufacturers who tried to reach out to them.

How many of those Covax vaccines have we seen to date? Not a single one.

The Covax promise, and every other promise made since then, has turned out to be lies. In December the President told us we’d have enough vaccines for 10% of the population by the beginning of the year. That was a lie.

Then he said we’d have 2 million doses by the end of March. That was a lie.

Now he’s still maintaining that we’ll vaccinate two-thirds of our population by year-end and that we’ll soon ramp up our daily rate to 300,000. And that, I’m afraid, is another big lie. Consider that over this past weekend we managed to do less than 25,000 over two days.

If there was any interest in changing tack to do things better, then the past 15 months have been full of lessons. But surely the biggest and clearest of these lessons is that our government is simply not up to the task of mounting and managing a response to the pandemic.

This botched vaccine programme has revealed the full extent of our incapable state.

There is no plan. There is no leadership. And there is no accountability.

Instead, we got billions of Rands of pandemic looting, a health minister at the centre of a corruption scandal and a Deputy President who is meant to be heading up our vaccine rollout, but who is mostly missing in action.

A Deputy President who jets off to Russia for his own personal medical treatment at the taxpayer’s expense, while leaving millions of poor South Africans at the sharp end of the state’s failing healthcare system.

Realising that it is way out of its depth, government should have called in the help of the private sector a long time ago. It should also have allowed provincial governments to shoulder more of the responsibility, particularly where these governments have proven that they have the capacity to do so.

For a government obsessed with central control, letting go of the reins was always going to be a big ask, but in the context of the unfolding crisis, it is undoubtedly what they should have done.

It didn’t take 15 months to reveal this either. Right from the start, when no province outside of the Western Cape used the initial hard lockdown to significantly expand hospital capacity, and when government’s tracking and tracing programme fell woefully short, we knew that the national government was in over its head.

That’s when the net should have already been cast wide by roping in the private sector.

But it is with the procurement and rollout of vaccines that we saw just how out of its depth this government truly is. It has been one catastrophic failure after another.

And on Sunday night, the closest President Ramaphosa could get to offer some kind of acknowledgement of these failures was when he euphemistically referred to some “missteps” along the way.

When your country has 60,000 official Covid deaths and excess deaths that suggest a Covid death rate far worse, you don’t call them missteps. You take full ownership, you apologise and you fix it.

Our country’s shambolic vaccine programme has now reached the point where it regularly makes the pages and the broadcasts of the international media.

We should have been in the best position on the continent to roll out a vaccination programme, given our infrastructure, financial clout and healthcare resources, yet we are languishing in the bottom half of the table of African countries.

This is shameful. But it’s more than that. It’s criminal too. Thousands of people have already died and thousands more will die in the coming months because our population is so poorly vaccinated.

The third wave was no surprise. Everyone knew it was coming, and when it would be here. And the fourth wave after this will be no surprise either. Just as the arrival of the Delta variant in our country was no surprise, despite what the President tried to claim on Sunday night.

The deaths that happened during the first two waves were tragic, but they happened before vaccines were readily available.

However, many of the deaths we are seeing now were preventable, had government initiated its vaccine procurement when other countries were doing so in June and July of last year.

Instead, our government only signed the Covax deal and then sat back down, ignoring meeting requests from vaccine suppliers.

Our Health Department only applied to National Treasury for procurement deviation to purchase vaccines on the 6th of January this year, months and months after other countries had locked in their orders.

The deaths that are happening now are a direct result of the incompetence and the inadequacies of our government. It rests on their shoulders.

And I’m not even talking here about the billions of Rands looted in the PPE feeding frenzy. I’m not even talking about the dodgy contracts like Digital Vibes awarded to connections of cabinet ministers.

I’m talking about the failure to do the very basics of their job: increase hospital beds and buy vaccines. Just those two things would have saved thousands of lives.

There has to be an accounting for these failures, which is why the DA has called for a full parliamentary inquiry. We will see to it that those who dropped the ball are held accountable.

But what should happen now to get our vaccination programme on track? Rambling on about the unfairness of the global vaccine market and blaming vaccine apartheid won’t put more jabs in arms. And that is all that matters now.

So, for starters, President Ramaphosa must admit that he needs help. He has to acknowledge that he, his cabinet and his Coronavirus Command Council are drowning and cannot manage this rollout.

And then he has to let other players into the game. And by this, I’m talking primarily about the private sector, as well as competent provincial governments.

Right now we need to dramatically increase our vaccine acquisition and distribution, and it doesn’t matter who brings these vaccines into the country. The moratorium on vaccine orders by anyone other than national government has to come to an immediate end.

That’s why I have now written to every major vaccine supplier approved by SAHPRA to let them know exactly how critical our situation is, and why we are in this situation.

I have asked each of them to consider entering into agreements with either private entities or provincial governments in order to speed up our vaccine deliveries because our national government cannot manage this task.

I have made it clear to them just how many South African citizens are dying today as a direct result of national government’s failure to act sooner.

These are avoidable deaths, and we need to start avoiding them.

As far as the money is concerned, it is outrageous that government blames our extremely slow rollout – particularly over weekends – on a lack of money to pay staff overtime. Money is not, and should never be, an obstacle here.

Consider that a recent study by Discovery, PWC and Business for SA estimated that a vaccine programme to reach two-thirds of our population would cost around R13.5 billion, but would lead to a GDP growth of nearly 11 times that amount.

The money our economy lost due to the various stages of lockdown would have paid for this vaccine programme dozens of times over. Money cannot be the problem.

And indeed it isn’t. Government budgeted R6 billion for the vaccine rollout, plus an additional R9 billion in the contingency reserve. There is no better use for that reserve than to pay for a seven-day-a-week vaccination effort. The Finance Minister must immediately make those funds available.

If the money could be found to throw R150 million at Digital Vibes or to spend another R83 million on Cuban doctors on top of the R200 million already spent, then the money can be found to vaccinate our citizens.

Then there is the issue of hospital capacity, and particularly in Gauteng where healthcare is straining under the pressure.

It is simply unforgivable that the 1000 bed Charlotte Maxeke hospital has not yet reopened after the fire of two months ago. Five weeks just to appoint a contractor is unacceptable, and heads should roll.

The hospital – or as many sections as possible – needs to be opened right away.

Where there is a will there is a way. Consider that the DA government in the Western Cape started admitting patients to the 850 bed CTICC Hospital of Hope a mere four weeks after gaining access to the site.

If the Gauteng Health Department is incapable of ensuring that this hospital, along with their various other mothballed field hospitals, is reopened in time, then the National Department of Health should crack the whip.

And if they’re unable to do so – which I strongly suspect is the case – then the President himself must step in.

What we also need to do is admit when something is not working optimally and make changes. And here I’m referring specifically to the scheduling of vaccinations by SMS and by age cohort. We can see that this is not working the way it should, and we have a deadly third wave bearing down on us, so let us change course while we still can.

Where vaccine stocks allow for it, we should open the walk-ins to those above 50 right away, and not wait until the middle of July. This is the age cohort that made up the bulk of hospitalisations in the first two waves, and we need to get as many of them protected before the wave hits.

Right now the most important goal is jabs in arms. Who provides these vaccines, who distributes them and who delivers the shots are not what matters. And if we have unused vaccines at sites where 50 to 60 year-olds could be protected, we must have the flexibility to do so.

And finally, I want to appeal to each and every one of you to do whatever you personally can to help in these difficult times. Think of where people are struggling and where you can possibly make a contribution.

Perhaps there is a community soup kitchen that needs more hands or extra meals. Perhaps there is a school feeding scheme that has been shut down along with the school.

Perhaps the local shelter could use some of your clothes. Or perhaps it is as simple as supporting your local restaurant by ordering takeaways from them.

We all need to dig a little deeper and show a little empathy.

If you’re a landlord, is there a way you can accommodate your struggling tenants? Can loan repayments or supplier invoices be structured or temporarily deferred?

We have to get through this together.

I was told the other day that doctors at Cape Town’s biggest hospital, Groote Schuur, all put in extra unpaid hours every month to alleviate the pressure of Covid admissions. This is a great example for all of us.

For the foreseeable future, we are going to have to discover our sense of community and of service to others.

We must know by now that our government cannot and will not protect us and look after us the way it should and that we have to look out for one another.

Across the country, we’ve already seen many signs of this.

We’ve seen ordinary South Africans step in and take over the maintenance of water infrastructure, the filling of potholes and the cutting of grass verges where their local ANC governments have failed them.

We’ve seen heroic organisations like Gift of the Givers pick up much of the slack where government’s social programmes have fallen short.

We’ve seen businesses take on more and more of what should be government’s duties.

And now we are going to have to see this same selfless civic duty in service of our fellow citizens as we battle this pandemic together.

Luckily we have one thing on our side that stands us in very good stead here, and that is the fact that we are the South African people.

South Africans are no strangers to adversity. We’ve overcome tremendous challenges before. If anyone has the ingenuity, the heart and the fighting spirit to overcome this crisis – despite its government – it is the people of this great country.

We will persevere and we will make it through.

Until then, let’s all be responsible in our actions, let’s be kind to one another and, above all, let us all stay safe.

Thank you.