Government ‘caught napping’ on Covid-19 vaccines – now South Africa will pay the price

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) says that it is unimpressed by the country’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout strategy and that government has failed to act in a timeous and effective manner.

Cosatu is the largest trade federation in the country with an estimated membership of 1.8 million workers.

The group criticised a media briefing by Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize on Sunday evening which focused on the vaccine rollout, calling the meeting a ‘PR exercise’.

“A solid and convincing vaccine acquisition and distribution strategy should have been developed earlier and by now, the government should be starting the rollout process and not making vague commitments,” it said.

“The to-do list that includes phone calls, bilaterals, research, authorisation that the minister is talking about should have been done four months ago, in September last year, when there were signs already that a vaccine was probable in the first quarter of 2021.”

The federation called Mkhize’s briefing ‘incomprehensible’ and said that government leadership has been ‘caught napping’ in the face of a deadly pandemic ravaging the country.

“What the minister presented is bunk, and the country should not accept it. South Africans are familiar with the egregious policy failures with deadly consequences as we saw with the mismanagement of the Aids pandemic.

“It is clear that we are dealing with colossal mismanagement of the vaccine procurement process and frontline workers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities will pay with their lives.”

Cosatu said that there are 40 countries that have already begun immunising their citizens, some since December and even some of South Africa’s peers in the middle-income bracket.

“The government is only telling us about a plan to cover between 3% and 10% by June.  That does not even include the logistics of conducting the actual vaccinations which could take us to August,” Cosatu said.

Phased rollout

Mkhize provided an outline of South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout strategy in a public address on Sunday evening (3 January).

“We are targeting a minimum of 67% of the population to achieve herd immunity and the approach will be a phased rollout of the vaccine beginning with the most vulnerable in our population,” the minister said.

He said that the only way to deal with a second wave is to develop herd immunity through vaccination.

“The vaccines will need to be made available quickly so that most of our citizens are covered by the end of the first year of rollout – this year,” the minister said.

“Having secured for 10% of the population, we have embarked on other efforts to get the rest of the 57% of the population to be targeted by the end 2021 but, more importantly, we are making efforts to obtain vaccines much earlier, hopefully as early as February 2021,” he said.

The priority of the vaccine rollout will begin with healthcare workers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities.

“By the end of phase 3 – 40,350,000 citizens will have been immunized which is equivalent to approximately 67.25% of the population as we have indicated,” the minister said.

Government said it it will need to raise the funds to deal with the remainder of the population. Mkhize said that the R1.8 billion set aside for vaccinations has already been used. The minister said that the government has approached the Solidarity Fund to assist in the procurement process.

Dr Mkhize said: “To optimize the availability of stock for ourselves we are negotiating with all the manufacturers and pursuing those who are indicating appetite to make vaccines available sooner.

“We are in sensitive discussions. I have been involved in some of these discussions and can mention a few of them, Astra Zeneca, Moderna, etc.”

Additionally, the minister said that the government has embarked on public-private partnerships “with very good outcomes and we have approached medical aids to be part of the co-financing”.

“The process is now at a stage where the Council for Medical Schemes has engaged various medical schemes and I have signed amendments of regulations to allow for vaccines and other therapeutics to be part of the prescribed minimum benefits,” he said.

Read: Africa left with few options for vaccines, South Africa says

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Government ‘caught napping’ on Covid-19 vaccines – now South Africa will pay the price