Mr. President, Minister Mkhize… Where are our vaccines?

When the vaccine eventually arrives, government said it will prioritize the vaccination of healthcare workers, and thereafter, an ambitious plan to give jabs to around 40 million South Africans.

Mr. President, Minister Mkhize… Where are our vaccines?

President Cyril Ramaphosa’ss government was roundly applauded for its Codesa-like multiparty approach in responding to the coronavirus pandemic in March, but is now being savaged for being slow off the mark and its widely-perceived bungling of the country’s vaccine procurement process.

And while developing nations are among the more than 50 already administering shots; Pretoria’s inoculation program yet to get off the ground; and Ramaphosa insisting that the process is on track; frustrated health experts, opposition parties, business, and civic formations are feeling increasingly alienated from the process as the ANC-led government pursues a seemingly ‘go it alone’ path.

President say vaccine programme is on track

In December, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that South Africa had secured sufficient shots to cover just 10% of the population from Covax, the facility that aims to distribute vaccines equitably around the world.

Ramaphosa this month announced a deal with the Serum Institute of India that will enable 750 000 health workers to get the AstraZeneca jabs by the end of February.

An additional 20 million doses, including the Covax allocation, have been secured from Pfizer Inc., Johnson & Johnson, and other suppliers, according to the President.

But those are only due to start arriving next month and authorities have been scrambling to source additional supplies.

Against the backdrop of a barrage of criticism from health experts, Ramaphosa insists that preparations to vaccinate two-thirds of the population (60 million) by year-end began months ago.

Health workers demand vaccine rollout to ‘bring pandemic under control’

Not so, counter a chorus of voices

The haphazard procurement process has angered South Africa’s top medical scientists along with frustrated trade unions, business groupings, and opposition parties, who all say the country is running against the clock.

The Democratic Alliance’s shadow health minister Siviwe Gwarube said the country’s “lack of a clear vaccine plan” was now developing into a “full-blown crisis.”

Trade union Solidarity and civil society group AfriForum, meanwhile, are pursuing legal action over what they say is government’s proposed ‘monopoly’ on acquiring and distributing Covid-19 vaccines.

They said their aim is to ensure that those who seek to get the vaccine in South Africa are not obstructed from doing so by “government incompetence or corruption.”

South Africa has recorded 1.38 million infections so far, the most in Africa, and more than 39 000 deaths. Overwhelmed hospitals across the nation can barely cope with the resurgence in cases and subsequent influx of patients, driven by the new coronavirus strain identified late November 2020.

“It was poor planning on the part of the government,” said Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinnology and lead researcher for the South African arm of the AstraZeneca Plc and University of Oxford vaccine trial.

“They failed the country.”

Shuttle diplomacy’

President Ramaphosa and Health Minister Mkhize have been shuttling between news interviews to defend government’s approach and to reassure an increasingly skeptic public.

Their explanations, and those of other officials, range from not having the requisite funds to pay for shots upfront to proposed contracts breaching legislative and transparency requirements.

Much of the criticism, though, is in the direction of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines and its chairman, Barry Schoub.

Shortly after the panel was appointed in September, Schoub recommended the country forgo direct talks with pharmaceutical companies and access the shots from Covax instead.

The government followed his advice, Bloomberg reported, and agreed to buy half the doses it was entitled to from the facility.

Graphic:Thomson Reuters Foundation

Four months on, suppliers are unable to deliver at short notice and as thesouthafrican (TSA) reported earlier, a number of wealthier nations having prepaid to secure early access, sometimes ordering several times what their populations need. TSA further reported in September 2020, that the world’s rich nations had already snapped-up more than half of the promised supply of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Some companies that are still taking orders are charging less than the prices available from Covax, which enables rich and middle-income nations to subsidise poor ones,” Bloomberg reported.

Schoub, Ramaphosa and Mkhize argued South Africa risked losing money if it entered bilateral agreements to secure vaccines that proved ineffective.

Madhi shot back that the deposits would be returned if the shots failed.

“Vaccines should not be driven by market forces,” Schoub said on a webinar on Thursday, according to Bloomberg, urging equitable distribution of the shots globally.

“It’s actually grotesque what has happened.”

A view echoed in the week, by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who warned that countries indulging in “vaccinationalism” was self-defeating and would delay the global recovery.

Guterres’ comments were followed by that of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who in turn blasted rich nations’ ‘me-first approach’ to Covid-19 vaccines.

‘Inter-ministerial committee a vaccine game-changer

“We are going to be getting vaccines in the numbers we need,” an adamant President said at a Jan. 19 briefing, where he also announced the formation of an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the inoculations.

“It will be a game-changer as far as dealing with the pandemic is concerned.”

Covid-19 Vaccine: Cosatu chimes into chorus of criticism against Cyril’s government

The 1.8 million-member Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), a key ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), remains unmoved in its criticism.

“We read them the riot act. This has been nothing short of criminal negligence,” said Matthew Parks, Cosatu’s parliamentary coordinator, according to Bloomberg.

“If this doesn’t get fixed it could destroy Cyril’s legacy or even his chances of a second term.”

With public confidence plunging, a failure to bring the pandemic under control could also erode support for the ANC in the local government elections scheduled for later this year.

It could also provide fertile ground for Ramaphosa’s detractors within his ANC to question his credibility and push for his ousting.

In a letter responding to queries from a non-profit, Corruption Watch, the National Treasury said it told the health ministry on Jan. 6 it could negotiate directly with vaccine suppliers, a departure from normal procurement rules, Bloomberg reported.

Solidarity Fund steps in

On Dec. 3, Ramaphosa announced that the Solidarity Fund had stepped in to pay the Covax deposit after the government missed a self-imposed deadline.

“We are encouraged that the Solidarity Fund will be making an initial contribution of R327 million on behalf of our country to COVAX.”

Business organisations were only approached for help in early January, according to Bloomberg.

Medical insurers have agreed to pay for vaccines to cover their members as well as an equal number of others who don’t have cover, it’s been reported.

A vaccination campaign covering 67% of the population will cost about R20 billion, of which about 30% would be covered by medical insurers, according to Mkhize.

‘Beggars belief’

John Steenhuisen, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party, said he’d been reliably informed that talks with reputable vaccine manufacturers only started this year, according to Bloomberg.

“The public has a right to know why, after six months of claimed negotiations, not one single bilateral agreement was signed and not a single dose secured for South Africa in 2020.”

‘Shockingly disingenuous’: Group of eminent SA scientists tear into gov over ‘vaccine fiasco’

A grouping of eminent SA scientists said in early January editorial that it “beggars belief” that South Africa has neither a secured vaccine supply nor a plan for mass inoculation in the foreseeable future, calling on Ramaphosa to fire officials who oversaw the vaccine procurement “fiasco.”

The group included Prof Glenda Gray, the president of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) who was pushed out without explanation from Mkhize’s advisory council in September.

“President Cyril Ramaphosa will have to dispense with his “otherwise admirable political consensus management and wield the axe against the members and officials in his administration responsible for the perilous Covid-19 vaccine fiasco.” 

Hidden agenda?

Schoub reportedly told the BBC that the scientists who penned the editorial “might have another agenda, which has caused them to go on a rampage” but didn’t elaborate on what the agenda might be.

“The delay is unfortunate but I don’t think it’s total gloom,” as is being portrayed by the media, Schoub said on the webinar.

Critics also pointed out to Bloomberg that South Africa squandered a huge advantage of hosting as many as four Covid-19 vaccine trials — the only country in Africa to do so — as well as having Johnson & Johnson agree to use a South African factory that has the capacity to produce 300 million doses a year.

All that should have helped secure deals, they said.

Instead, South Africa may face the prospect of more lockdowns, desolation, and increasing isolation as other countries steam ahead with their inoculation rollouts.

“They are simply going to close their borders to our goods and people,” Cosatu’s Parks told Bloomberg.

“Everybody is losing far more by not sorting this out.”

Source : The South African More