President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on developments in relation to the South Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/Reuters
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on developments in relation to the South Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Elmond Jiyane/Reuters

Thousands will die because government dropped the ball on Covid-19 vaccine

By Opinion Time of article published Jan 5, 2021

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Douglas Gibson

Johannesburg - When President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation recently, announcing the reversion to lockdown level 3, he looked sombre indeed. On social media there was comment about the tears he briefly shed and some unkind folk – in fact many of them – referred to these as “crocodile tears.” I thought that was not fair - I am sure he cares deeply about the situation.

I am surprised, however, that he only glancingly referred to the question of the vaccine. The president should have apologised to South Africa for the way in which his government has failed on this issue. One of our country’s most eminent Covid-19 experts and professor of vaccinology at Wits University, Professor Shabir Mahdi, said recently that the government has dropped the ball on the vaccine.

President Ramaphosa briefly stated that the Solidarity Fund (thank Heaven for those generous people) had paid the deposit and that South Africa could expect the vaccine in the second quarter of 2021. This will be enough for 10% of our population. He remained silent on the shocking delays and failures in paying the deposit. There seems to be no aspect of the government that is able to operate efficiently.

Perhaps even worse than these payment delays, is the failure of South Africa to negotiate, starting six or seven months ago, the price and availability of vaccines with companies that this country assisted in a major way with clinical trials. We could have and should have been in an extremely favourable position and been way ahead of most other countries in the vaccine queue.

What is wrong with our minister of Health? What is wrong with our bureaucrats? What is wrong with the president? While they were fiddling around with fried chickens, open-toed shoes, sports clothes and other inanities, they should have been doing their job in negotiating on behalf of our country. They failed. Thousands will die as a result.

How does our country compare with other countries in this vital question of vaccinating the population? A country like South Korea was proactive; it secured the vaccine and plans on vaccinating 50 million people in the next two months. The UK was the first country in the world to start vaccinating, on December 8, and already a million people have been vaccinated.

The much-reviled Trump administration looked after its people far better than some of its media critics thought possible and 3.05 million people were inoculated before New Year. Italy, France, Germany, Mexico, Costa Rica, Israel, Argentina, Serbia, China, Iceland, Canada, Peru, to name only a few, are some of the 26 countries where the vaccination programme has started with, according to Bloomberg, 6 million doses already administered.

Most countries are, of course, focusing first on health care workers and others who are the most vulnerable, before moving on to the elderly, those with co-morbidities, those at high risk and then on to the general population.

South Africa with a worse case fatality rate than the UK, Italy and Spain, has dropped the ball.

While most reasonable people support steps aimed at limiting the spread of the virus, the leader of the opposition, John Steenhuisen, put his finger on the weakest part of the president’s case and stressed that there is now no more urgent priority than obtaining the vaccine and starting vaccinating our 60 million people.

Was the government listening?

* Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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