A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccine is prepared for a patient. File picture: Craig F. Walker/Pool via Reuters
A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (Covid-19) vaccine is prepared for a patient. File picture: Craig F. Walker/Pool via Reuters

Government is responsible for foreseeable, preventable Covid-19 deaths

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 11, 2021

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By Michael Donen

Last March, Covid was an unforeseeable catastrophe. Every government was forced to make life and death judgements in the face of incomplete information.

But months later, the need for vaccines to be pre-purchased, and for their rollout to be planned, was foreseeable.

We know this because it was foreseen. It was foreseen by poor countries as well as rich countries.

The countries by which it was foreseen are or will very soon be vaccinating their people en masse.

To protect their citizens from death is a basic task of any government. It is their first task.

To fail to do so, whether through malice or incompetence, is unforgivable.

Our government has failed to protect us.

Poor and rich countries alike managed to pre-order vaccines at the earliest opportunity in order to vaccinate their people and avoid tens of thousands of deaths.

Aruba, El Salvador, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, and Suriname are among a litany of countries no wealthier than South Africa with vaccine contracts covering at least 10% of their population. This is more than double South Africa’s coverage.

It remains unclear why our government failed to make similar provisions. This lack of clarity is because every governmental pronouncement on the subject blends fantasy and obfuscation.

Aspirations are stated as facts. Absurd, baroque excuses are provided for the failure to pre-emptively source vaccines when other countries were doing so. Thousands of South Africans will die because of this.

And there is no excuse.

It is true that the especially virulent South African strain of the virus which has recently emerged is tragic and unexpected. But to cite it in any discussion of the non-purchase of vaccines is a red herring.

Quibbling about whether money spent on vaccines comes out of general taxation of individuals and the private sector, or should be paid for directly by the private sector, is a red herring.

To cite budgetary limitations or value for money is a particularly obscene red herring. It reveals how little value the government puts on South African lives.

Currently, the government has scrabbled together belated commitments to provide 1.5 million doses by the end of February.

This is not enough to vaccinate South Africans over the age of 75, quite apart from health workers.

Last year, the government had the opportunity to pre order vaccines.

It did not.

This may be for one of the (many, contradictory) reasons they have stated. It may also be simple incompetence.

South Africans are dying because our government, unlike others of equivalent wealth, failed to pre-order vaccines and plan a rollout. Thousands more will die over the coming months.

Many of these deaths will have been preventable.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s televised tears count for nothing, even if they are sincere.

We do not require our President to weep over preventable deaths. We require him to prevent them.

But no matter how many people die through his government’s negligence, we will not replace the government.

They will have the privilege of appearing on television to cry at the deaths for which they are responsible, as often as they like.

We know this. Because this has happened before.

President Mbeki ensured the preventable deaths of 343 000 people by refusing to provide antiretrovirals to those infected with HIV.

After the ANC replaced Mbeki with Zuma, we forgave the ANC for what Mbeki had done: the ANC was re-elected to government.

After the ANC replaced Zuma with Ramaphosa, we forgave the ANC for Zuma. The ANC was re-elected.

I do not know what is inside the heart of President Ramaphosa or Health Minister Mkhize. It does not matter. I am not a priest. The government is responsible, again, through its choices, for preventable deaths on a huge scale.

It is the government’s duty to protect the lives of all its citizens.

It has failed. It continues to fail. And we will suffer the consequences.

And they will not.

* Michael Donen SC is a legal practitioner and listed counsel of the International Criminal Court.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

Cape Times

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