President Cyril Ramaphosa, China's President Xi Jinping, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. File picture: Pavel Golovkin/AP
President Cyril Ramaphosa, China's President Xi Jinping, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro. File picture: Pavel Golovkin/AP

South Africa looks to BRICS for solidarity in Covid-19 fight

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Apr 12, 2020

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These are strange and desperate times.

In the New World Order where top French doctors suggest using Africans as guinea pigs for Covid-19 vaccines, UK companies refuse to share their designs for ventilators with South African emergency task teams and the US steals consignments of masks destined for other countries, South Africa is reaching out to its BRICS partners for solidarity in the fight against

the pandemic.

In times like these, our first port of call is to those nations with whom we have developed strong alliances over time, out of conviction that friends will remain friends even in the worst of times. Interests will, of course, always trump friendship, but there is a great deal to be gained for BRICS countries to have one another’s backs.

Our BRICS partners, particularly China, India and Russia, are in a strong position to offer assistance - China and Russia in terms of personal protection equipment (PPE), Russia with ventilators and India in terms of medicine.

South Africa needs all the items and can no longer rely on developed countries to assist as they are all securing medical essentials for their own people and are not willing, or in a position to, share their stock.

South Africa imports 90% of its medical equipment and its traditional sources for procurement are saturated. Our health workers are in urgent need of protective clothing, N95 masks and gloves, and in vast quantities.

The group Business for South Africa (BSA) has warned that South Africa has only three to four weeks' supply of PPE left, according to its inventory put together by the public health working group. Stavros Nicolaou of Aspen Pharmacare, who heads BSA, has said orders have been placed for PPE with manufacturers

in China.

Delivery of the essentials can’t come soon enough as the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa have said nurses in clinics in rural areas have little or no protective gear. Tens of thousands of health workers say that shortages are putting them at risk.

Nehawu filed an urgent application with the Labour Court in Johannesburg against the minister of health and health MECs over PPE.

Nicolaou also sits on the BRICS Business Council, which wasted no time in contacting the other BRICS business councils to request assistance.

Busi Mabuza, the chairperson of the Industrial Development Corporation and of the South African chapter of the BRICS Business Council, wrote to her counterparts in India and China. The councils were very responsive and elevated the requests for assistance to their business chambers and governments.

The chairperson of the India chapter of the council communicated the request to the Indian government with regard to supplies of pharmaceutical products and discussed the matter with the Indian pharmaceutical industry.

The message came back that special arrangements could be made for the transport of such goods and that ports and cargo planes were functional.

India had put 26 compounds under export control, meaning that compounds such as paracetamol could not be exported, which was problematic for South Africa as it relies on India for secure supplies of essential drugs.

But India had expressed its willingness to assist and this week the export ban was lifted.

Minister for Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel has been praised by the South African chapter of the BRICS Business Council for his intervention with his counterparts in India and China.

While the South African chapter of the council has not made requests to its counterparts in Russia for assistance, President Cyril Ramaphosa made a request to President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call last week. The Russian president is reported to have asked Ramaphosa for a list of what South Africa needs.

It is believed that the list is under consideration in Moscow.

Ramaphosa mentioned the need for technical expertise on infection control and a supply of life-saving medical equipment and equipment for mobile testing.

Russia has supported China, Italy and the US with supplies. Senior Russian officials said Russia was in a position to send ventilators to South Africa.

Russia has been effective in curbing the spread of Covid-19 through mass testing and has conducted more than a million tests.

Brazil does not appear to be in a position to provide any assistance to South Africa, given that Brazil’s health ministry has said its reserves are depleted. Alexandre Telles, the president of Rio de Janeiro’s doctors' union was quoted as saying: “In another week we won’t have any masks.”

Brazil’s health ministry had placed orders for purchases of PPE from China, but the orders fell through after the US transported plane loads of such equipment from China that were supposed to be delivered to Brazil.

Brazil and France have also said the US is outbidding them in the global marketplace for critical medical supplies. In some instances, the US has offered three times the price and offered to pay upfront.

What the US has done to countries it considers its allies is unforgivable, diverting orders the countries were counting on for N95 masks and gloves and sending them to the US instead. Trump has invoked the Defence Production Act to demand US firms provide more masks, and the Minnesota manufacturer of 3M masks has been ordered to prioritise the US over foreign orders.

The Trump administration has ordered 3M to stop exporting masks to Canada and Latin America and import more from factories in China.

Last Friday, the US diverted an order of 200 000 masks en route from China to Berlin, paid for to protect the Berlin police force. Germany’s interior minister, Andreas Geisel, called the diversion “(an) act of modern piracy... not how you deal with Transatlantic partners”. Berlin mayor Michael Muller called it “inhumane and unacceptable”.

Trump was unapologetic, boasting that the US took custody of 200 000 N95 respirators, 130 000 surgical masks and 600 000 gloves.

Arguably one of Trump’s most depraved acts to date was his attempt to get German firm CureVac to move its research wing to the US to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 that would be “for the US only”. The German health minister, Jens Spahn, retorted that CureVac would develop a vaccine for the whole world, not for individual countries.

This type of immorality is not confined to Trump, however. Two top French Doctors shocked the world last week when they made racist comments suggesting Africans be used as guinea pigs for the testing of potential Covid-19 vaccines.

Jean-Paul Mira, head of the ICU at the Cochin hospital in Paris said: “It may be provocative. Should we not do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment or intensive care, a little bit like it’s been done for certain Aids studies, where among prostitutes, we try things, because we know that they are highly exposed and don’t protect themselves?”

Camille Locht, the research director at France’s National Health Institute, Inserm, agreed: “You are right. And by the way, we are thinking in parallel about a study in Africa using this same approach.”

What is clear from the colonial and racist attitudes is that Africans need to rely on themselves, their private sectors, as well as reach out to their allies and progressive governments in the developing and developed world who are more likely to honour requests for assistance.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.

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