SA’s failed attempt at 67% Covid-19 vaccination by December 2021 – an abysmal tale

South Africa’s leadership has made several critical mistakes in its efforts to vaccinate 67% of the population and achieve herd immunity against Covid-19. The bumbling started long before vaccines eventually landed on our shores. So did the finger-pointing and excuses. The government remained silent about their haphazard plans until the Democratic Alliance applied for a court order to compel the government to publish its plans and protocols. When the plans were made public, information was worryingly scant and the strategy contained many unknowns. The latest controversial decision was to reject a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine based on a small study involving an extremely narrow demographic of young, healthy people which showed little protection against the local strain of the virus. While the government has agreed that privately run and funded medical aid schemes will cross-subsidise 14 million vaccinations, it insists that no private sector institutions may purchase vaccines without national government’s approval. This article, which examines the disastrous rollout and missed opportunities for the opposition to step up to the plate, first appeared on the Daily Friend. – Melani Nathan

Vaccines: missed opportunities for DA and private sector

By Ivo Vegter* 

While the private sector timidly kowtows to the ANC, and the DA government in the Western Cape rolls over at the first sign of resistance, the communists in China are pulling out all the stops to bail out the ANC’s disastrous vaccination drive.

The sluggish vaccination of healthcare workers is grinding to a halt in some hospitals. Vaccinators are twiddling their thumbs while they impatiently await new supplies of vaccines.

Since 17 February, more than five weeks ago, fewer than 200 000 healthcare workers have received the injection.

The original target of vaccinating 1.5 million healthcare workers by the end of March was first revised down to 700 000 and then postponed to the end of April. Last weekend, the Sunday Times quoted Professor Glenda Gray predicting that only 500 000 healthcare workers would be vaccinated by the end of April, ‘if there were no delays’.

But delays there are and will be again. Just yesterday, the government admitted that it would fail to meet its vaccination target of reaching 67% of the South African population by the end of 2021. It has set new targets, only slightly less unreachable.

The government’s handling of the vaccination campaign is, consistent with its track record, abysmal.

While it waits patiently for Covax to deliver some vaccines, maybe, in a few months’ time, and small batches of the J&J vaccine are trickling in, the government rashly palmed off a million AstraZeneca doses – which it had ordered at an inflated price from the Serum Institute of India – to unnamed members of the African Union.

Slim grounds

The grounds for rejecting the AstraZeneca vaccine were very slim indeed. A small-scale study among young and healthy individuals had found that vaccination did not offer much protection against mild Covid-19 caused by the South African strain of the virus.

It had not found the vaccine to be ineffective against severe disease, hospitalisation or death, which is surely its primary purpose. Given that most other vaccines are less effective against mild to moderate disease than against moderate to severe disease, there was no reason to rush to the judgement that the AstraZeneca vaccine was ‘surplus to requirements’ in South Africa.

As it happens, newer data shows that the vaccine is 100% effective at preventing serious disease and hospitalisation, and although its overall efficacy rate, most recently reported at 79%, remains in dispute, it won’t be dramatically lower than that.

Despite hysterical over-reactions in some European countries in response to rare adverse events that are vanishingly unlikely to be related to the vaccine, the AstraZeneca shot remains quite safe. Given the number of lives it would likely save, it would be more than safe enough even if it did cause a handful of severe side-effects or even deaths.

It is also the cheapest vaccine in the world, AstraZeneca being the only manufacturer committed to distributing its vaccine on a not-for-profit basis.

Catastrophic collapse

The government cried ‘racism’ about being at the back of the order queue when nobody in government could even be bothered to approach vaccine manufacturers before the beginning of this year (a fact about which president Cyril Ramaphosa flat-out lied on national television).

From the botched AstraZeneca deal to the slow roll-out, to the uncertainty about future vaccine supplies, the government has shown that it simply does not care about the lives of South Africans. Thousands of citizens will pay with their lives for its determination to maintain centralised monopoly control over the vaccination campaign despite its demonstrated negligence and incompetence.

Health minister Zweli Mkhize wanted to use vaccinations to show the country what healthcare would look like under National Health Insurance (NHI). He has succeeded spectacularly.

Another demonstration of what universal healthcare would look like in South Africa can be found in the ANC-run Eastern Cape. The catastrophic collapse of its healthcare system, crushed by a lack of basic facilities and staff, stifling bureaucracy, and destructive unions, is a microcosm of what we might expect should the government scale-up its provincial failures to the national level, and nationalise private healthcare with it.

And who can forget the horror of the government’s intervention at Life Esidimeni?

Sacrificing lives

In the midst of the ANC-run government’s failures, both the private sector and the official opposition have missed major opportunities to score political points and save lives by doing so.

The major health insurers in the private sector seem perfectly willing to sacrifice a certain number of their members on the altar of the ANC’s misbegotten vaccination strategy.

The reason is simple. The fate of private insurers, once the NHI is implemented, is in the hands of the ANC government. They will all be jockeying to win a tender to manage part of the NHI scheme.

Either on their own initiative or because they were overtly threatened by the ANC, they dare do nothing that casts the government’s centralised vaccination programme in a bad light. The lives of their members be damned.

They claim, falsely, that private pharmaceutical companies will only sell to governments, as a cover for their cowardly betrayal of their members. As if they have no leverage with drugmakers.

They claim only government can offer the indemnities that vaccine manufacturers require to shield them from lawsuits over inevitable side-effects. This is nonsense. If they can hawk flu shots every year, they can certainly procure and roll out Covid-19 vaccines. All it takes is for vaccinees to sign an indemnity form. It’s not rocket science.

With the government’s botched vaccination roll-out as further proof that healthcare fails in government hands, the private sector had (and perhaps still has) a great opportunity to demonstrate how much better private companies could do.

A well-funded, well-managed roll-out to members and non-members alike could have conclusively demonstrated why nationalising healthcare is such a terrible idea, thereby saving both the private medical industry and citizens from the government’s tender mercies.

Instead, they kowtow fatalistically to their ANC patrons, demonstrating once again that big business is spineless and will not take the side of their customers against the dysfunction of government.

Election bonanza

The Democratic Alliance (DA), which governs the Western Cape, likewise missed a glorious opportunity to make a point in the public mind.

Having woken up to vaccination even later than the ANC, they did make a half-hearted attempt to take the initiative by making budgetary provisions for the acquisition of vaccines and approaching two vaccine manufacturers. They claim, however, to have been turned down.

This suggests a striking lack of political nous. There are any number of cards that could have been played. Global manufacturers are acutely sensitive to the perception that they might be blocking vaccine distribution to developing nations. So are developed countries themselves.

If these two vaccine manufacturers refused to play ball, and really couldn’t be convinced by well-directed overtures, the DA could surely have approached any number of developed countries that possess stockpiles specifically earmarked for ‘vaccine diplomacy’ to developing countries like our own.

According to News24, ‘[t]he provincial government is receiving proposals through its normal supply chain management system from companies offering to help procure vaccines, but they will have to follow the usual tendering processes when the national government gives the go-ahead for provinces to be able to buy their own vaccines.’

Why would that not be true for the two companies that allegedly turned them down? Why is the Western Cape government not jumping at these offers? If vaccines don’t constitute emergency procurement, what does?

Why is the province waiting for national government to ‘give the go-ahead’? Just buy the vaccines and start inoculating people. If the national government tries to block the campaign, the Western Cape government would have the moral high ground. Let voters see who does and who doesn’t take the health of citizens seriously.

If the DA managed a comprehensive Western Cape roll-out in a matter of months, while the ANC fails to replicate this at a national level, where do you think voters will look to for their salvation in this year’s local elections? What do you think they’ll remember when the national and provincial elections roll around in 2024?

Instead, the Western Cape government seems to have given up at the first sign of resistance.

Who cares if they get accused of ‘politicising the pandemic’? Pandemic response and the delivery of healthcare services are deeply political issues. The failure of the ANC is a political crisis.

The only solution to this crisis is to demonstrate, in a dramatic fashion, that there is another way. That is the opportunity that is slipping by for the DA.

Taking advantage

Meanwhile, the communist bloc isn’t sitting on its hands. Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech has offered South Africa five million doses, with more in the pipeline.

This vaccine uses an inactivated virus to provoke an immune response, which is old technology. Still, its effectiveness numbers look decent, including against the South African variant. It has also been tested in children, unlike many other vaccines, and was found to be safe and effective.

The ANC is sure to make a big public relations hoo-hah about the generosity and expertise of our dear friends the Chinese Communist Party. Even the appearance that the Chinese have come to the South African government’s rescue would improve the public perception of the authoritarian command economies of the East, as against the liberal democratic order of the West.

Unlike the domestic private sector, and unlike the DA in the Western Cape, the Chinese know how to score a political coup.

  • Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. As an independent researcher, he is the author of the recent report from the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) – South Africa’s Minibus Taxi Industry, Resistance to Formalisation and Innovation – which assesses the potential for innovation and modernisation in this vital transport sector.
  • The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

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