Since the first shots against Covid-19 at the end of 2020, according to Bloomberg, 381 million shots have been administered in 126 countries, with the current rate of fire being nearly 10 million shots per day. At this rate, it will take about three and a half years for the world to reach the generally accepted critical level of immunity of 75%.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
Economically, socially and psychologically, humanity is in a race to achieve collective immunity before the virus has a chance to mutate into new vaccine-resistant strains.
The South African government has been completely lacking in this essential area. Similar economies and countries are leagues ahead of South Africa, a depressing state of affairs that was both preventable and inexcusable. According to Bloomberg, SA has so far inoculated 147,753 people, or 0.25% of the population, a glacial rate at which it will take more than 10 years to reach 75%.
While there is no doubt that South Africa is behind in this important race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Indeed, this situation could even be to the advantage of the country if the government and health authorities can learn from the experiences and mistakes of other pioneers.
The first lesson is that, when it comes to vaccines, communication is important. The deployment of vaccines in Europe has been plagued by many problems, but most damaging is that there has not been a coordinated and coherent message on how the vaccination will unfold.
With the supply chain in tatters, AstraZeneca became the guy with the downfall for failing to deliver the required quantities of a vaccine that was supposed to be of questionable effectiveness. French President Emmanuel Macron said the British / Swedish coup was “almost ineffective”, just before Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi blocked an export of vaccines to Australia on the grounds that it was essential. Although the vaccine has passed strict measures from the European Medicines Agency, reports have revealed that it causes blood clots and has been blocked in 17 EU member states. As a result of this communication mess, Europeans are increasingly reluctant to take the blow of AstraZeneca.
SA must do it right. President Ramaphosa must tell South Africans which shots are sure, when they will be deployed, who will do it and what the order of recipients will be.
Second, when it comes to jab deployment strategies, there is no one perfect system, but countries need to build on existing strengths in their health systems. Israel has a world-famous private vaccine network that was perfect for the job. The UK has used its centralized National Public Health Service to roll it out nationwide. Europe, on the other hand, has been a mess. The EU and national governments have turned to generally reliable regional health systems, which has resulted in a lack of coordination. Italy has now turned its tide and will use the military to build the vaccine supply chain. SA has a world-renowned private healthcare system, top-notch health insurers and, in Aspen, a world-class vaccine manufacturer. The government should seek to build this capacity to provide vaccines nationally.
Third, vaccines must be deployed quickly. Despite a catastrophic pandemic, U.S. health officials realized that it was better to distribute vaccines quickly, albeit imperfectly, rather than trying to over-rethink the system. In contrast, Germany was left out. Germans have to negotiate a complex online booking platform. The lesson for SA is this: don’t try to do it perfectly, just do it.
Finally, there is nothing more important. Forget about saving the economy, SAA, Zondo Commission, free college tuition, even Eskom. All of these things are trivial when it comes to exiting the pandemic.
At the moment, SA is calm before the storm of the third wave. This is likely to happen as the country enters winter, which, along with virulent new strains, could make it the deadliest and most destructive yet. This is the time that the government should use to release the vaccines. Hopefully, at some point someone in government will find out. DM168
This story first appeared in our Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.