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GOVERNMENT CONTINUES TO BUNGLE VACCINE ROLL OUT

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) notes the continued lack of progress in the vaccine roll-out. When SAFTU issued our statement two weeks ago, we registered concerns about the snail pace of implementing this critical measure to halt the pandemic. At that time, government had vaccinated only about 700 000 people. (Claims that 1.3 million have been vaccinated appear to be a vast overestimate).

Our sober analysis of how the roll-out is progressive confirms that we have not made the progress required, especially given developments since two weeks ago. At the point a hold was put on J&J vaccinations produced in Baltimore – due to potential impurities – as ordered by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Pfizer was the only vaccine available for inoculation. Because Pfizer requires two doses to constitute a complete vaccination, the 900 000 vaccinations administered through Pfizer are incomplete. This means we are dismally lagging behind where we should be.

From barely 700 000 inoculations two weeks ago to 1.3 million inoculations (including the incomplete Pfizer doses) last Friday, means we are administering just over 60 000 doses a day (and regrettably, only on weekdays). At the pace of 60 000 per day, government will only achieve the goal of inoculating 67% of the adult population in 1 year and 9 months, just as our observations two weeks ago estimated. At this rate, government will fail to achieve herd immunity by the end of this year.

The problem posed by the need to administer two doses of Pfizer is compounded by the appallingly slow pace of the vaccination roll-out.

The overarching problem remains obvious: the lack of global coordination in spreading appropriate vaccines, and opening new factories to make these. The reason for this problem is Big Pharma’s greed, insofar as Intellectual Property rights continue to halt progress in vaccine dissemination in all the world’s countries.

Other local factors that continue to be serious obstacles to the roll-out include shortages caused by government’s initial reliance on one supplier, J&J.

Many have criticized the shortage of vaccines due to government incompetence – e.g. failing to purchase access over a year ago when it was clear the vaccines would be produced – and the bias of those leading the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAPHRA). The bias against certain suppliers is, ironically, slowing the testing of Chinese, Russian and Cuban vaccines. Sunday Independent reported this week that government is giving preference to J&J and Pfizer because they have professors and researchers in SAPHRA who push the trials and approvals of such vaccine manufacturers quicker than others.

It is because of such allegations, according to an anonymous SAPHRA board member who spoke to the Sunday Independent, that Sinovac and Sputnik have not been approved for use.

Perhaps this explains why government is said to have rejected 15 million doses of Sputnik which would have arrived between March and May. But the delay on accessing the J&J vaccine has put the government in a desperate position leading to its dramatic turn towards Sputnik. Reportedly, government has gone back to Sputnik manufacturers to order 5 million doses. However, because of the negligent attitude, it will now cost the country R680 million to buy these, even though at an earlier date, the state could have gained 15 million doses for free.

Whether the reports on the attitude of SAPHRA and government towards manufacturers are correct or not, what is clear is that government is dismally failing and should be blamed for this bungling and shortages. The real and social consequences of this failure, however, are greater for the country’s poor and working-class people, ordinary souls who deserve far better. The shortage of vaccines has also dealt a great blow to the basic education capabilities of the state, and even the higher education sector. In the basic education sector, teachers and other non-teaching staff were set to be inoculated starting this week (07 – 11 June). This plan is not going ahead because of the shortage of vaccines, with government holding their breath wishing the FDA will give a green light on the J&J drugs in question.

Basic education is clearly hardest hit. The 5% decrease in the matric pass rate is said to be a direct result of the pandemic, as there was a surge in learner absenteeism due to Covid-19. In 2020, the Department of Basic Education reported that a stunning 15% of learners had not returned to school after the hard lockdown. In addition to this, teachers have reported that the rotational model is not conducive to learning. Learning requires continuities of lessons and assessments, and rotations have disrupted these necessary routines.

SAFTU reiterates that the vaccine bungling, and vaccine shortages are prolonging the risk of death that confronts especially the adult population of this country, and spells lack of progress in many social aspects of our lives. Our children and future generations are suffering profound violations of their rights to education, as a result. And ironically, this week we confront the biggest problem of all: global capitalist profits, which in the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Related Intellectual Property System debate, pits the masses of the world against, especially, European, and British leaders.

As if our own Pretoria regime – so corrupt that the health minister himself is now implicated in Covid-19 procurement fraud – is not a big enough barrier to vaccinations of our masses, there stands in Geneva, Switzerland an even bigger contributor, Big Pharma. For those who think capitalism can solve the problems it generates of its own accord, this is one of the most important moments to have a hard look at the reality: our state and global capital are in the business of manufacturing scarcity, so as to generate more Big Pharma profits than even before.