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Outrage over SA’s plan to vaccinate prisoners first before ordinary citizens

Outrage is brewing over the government’s decision to vaccinate awaiting trial and sentenced prisoners before ordinary citizens, when vaccines become available. Pictures: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Outrage is brewing over the government’s decision to vaccinate awaiting trial and sentenced prisoners before ordinary citizens, when vaccines become available. Pictures: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jan 13, 2021


Cape Town - Outrage is brewing over the government’s decision to vaccinate awaiting trial and sentenced prisoners before ordinary citizens, when vaccines become available.

Community safety standing committee chairperson in the Western Cape Legislature, Reagan Allen said it was not a good idea to vaccinate prisoners before ordinary citizens.

“I acknowledge that correctional centres may be prime sites of the spread of the pandemic, on account of confinement and overcrowding.

“This brings the issue back to the unsanitary and unsafe conditions in our prisons, which are not recent, nor a result of the virus.”

Allen said the conditions were the results of years of neglect and failure to upgrade prisons in line with the increasing inmate population.

“On the Cape Flats, and in some informal settlements around the country, there are hard-working members of the public who are similarly at risk, and those South Africans deserve access to the vaccine,” he said.

The outrage comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech on Monday, that the second part of their strategy was to identify the priority groups that needed to be vaccinated as the country would receive vaccine doses throughout the year.

Ramaphosa said in phase one, with the first batch of vaccines, they would prioritise nearly 1.2 million front-line healthcare workers. In phase two, when more vaccines arrive, they would prioritise essential workers – teachers, police, municipal workers and other front-line personnel.

He said they would also prioritise people in institutions including oldage homes, shelters and prisons, people over 60 years of age and adults with comorbidities, with the total number they are planning to reach in that phase estimated at about 16 million people.

“In phase three, with increased manufacturer supplies, we will then vaccinate the remaining adult population of approximately 22.5 million people. We will then have reached around 40 million South Africans, which is considered to approximate herd immunity,” said Ramaphosa.

SA Prisoners Organisation for Human Rights president Golden Miles Bhudu, supported and agreed that prisoners be among the first to be vaccinated.

Bhudu said experts, including the World Health Organization said the reason why prisoners should be prioritised was that when they (prisoners) contract Covid-19, they can easily and immediately transmit the disease to their fellow prisoners and prison staff as well as healthcare workers who treat them.

“Even though evidence has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that in the South African prisons, the scenario is versa-versa, meaning it is the prison staff that infect prisoners and their colleagues,” Bhudu said.

He said prisoners were now and then stripped and searched by the emergence support team with bare hands, sometimes without wearing masks.

SA Sentenced and Awaiting Trial Prisoners Organisation ( Sasapo) chairperson, Phindile Zweni, said the organisation had received numerous complaints from both inmates and officials of the Department of Correctional Services fearing the deadly second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Zweni said Sasapo had been fighting a losing battle for the basic human rights of offenders because the government had policies and procedures on paper, “which the very same government fails to implement”.

Correctional Services Department spokesperson, Singabakho Nxumalo said the department recognised the importance of keeping and maintaining correctional facilities Covid-19 free, and would continue to invest a larger part of its disaster management planning on intensifying preventive measures.

Nxumalo said there would be talks to daily report on all preventive and containment activities as well as incidences within the correctional value chain, especially at coalface and in departmental offices, to the DCS National Operations Centre (NOC).

“Our Covid-19 strategy will continue to be applied, paying attention to prevention measures, containment and treatment so that we can save lives and better protect every individual within our premises,” Nxumalo said.

He said the department had sufficient supply of the personal protective equipment and the stock levels were being monitored daily, and the behavioural change and adaptation by officials, inmates and those residing within the premises would go a long way in the prevention of new infections.

Stellenbosch University sociology professor Lindy Heinecken weighed in said that she can understand the moral conundrum around the situation.

“Prisoners are vulnerable living on top of each other and therefore the spread of covid and the health and security implications are huge if they are not vaccinated as a priority.

“Imagine now also having to guard the prisoners in hospital, which is additional costs to both the state and society,” Heinecken said.

“On the other hand, why should innocent citizens suffer, when those who are offenders are protected. Prisoners again, have no means to protect themselves a how do they do social distancing. There has to be some balancing on whose rights are paramount here.”

UCT Faculty of Health Sciences, Dean and Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson said with each week that passed, new infections and deaths continued to rise and critical time was lost.

Green-Thompson said while UCT supported the broad implementation framework outlined by the government, a detailed implementation plan was urgently required. To attain control of the pandemic in the country, widespread vaccination was needed beyond healthcare workers as soon as possible.

Head of the Department of Health in the Western Cape Dr Keith Cloete explained the that there are three categories for the Phase Two vaccine rollout - other essential workers, people in crowded environments, and then vulnerable people.

He explained prisoner’s fall into the second category under the current criteria. He explained it is clear that there is a need for further public engagement on the subject.

“This is one example of why it is so important that we have a broader discussion on ethics, and the criteria...I think people will probably say they can understand the other essential workers category which may include police, teachers and municipal workers - whatever we decide is essential.

“The vulnerable we can all understand - the elderly over 70, people with co-morbidities. It’s this other group, people in high-risk settings, (which forces us to ask) what is the criteria, and how do we have a public debate, and what is the ethics around it?

“I think it’s a very vital part of Phase Two to open those conversations, and have a deliberation.”

*Additional reporting by Theolin Tembo.

Cape Argus