The national lockdown update by Cyril Ramaphosa on 30 March 2021 revealed that government is failing, even faster, in the roll-out program of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The roll out has been delayed due to reasons relating to the inefficiency of the global capitalist system, in which competition between a few large pharmaceutical corporations which refuse to share Intellectual Property, and the hording of Covid-19 vaccines by rich countries, together create market distortions that can be described as vaccine-profiteering genocide.
This is no exaggeration: millions have died of Covid-19 (probably 150 000 in South Africa alone if excess death are included, triple what we are told in official Covid-19 statistics). Millions more will die because of Big Pharma and the rich countries’ selfishness.
Here, we also blame the government’s incompetence and lack of political will, as the main reasons we are not vaccinating our society at a faster rate. The government’s reliance on Johnson and Johnson is also problematic as production and delivery snags have been reported from the USA and Canada. Last November, the Aspen facility in Gqeberha was contracted to package J&J medicines, and only this week was President Cyril Ramaphosa able to announce that around 10% of the vaccines produced there will remain in South Africa.
But Ramaphosa’s track record of delivering on Covid-19 promises is unimpressive. In mid-2020 most countries were ordering vaccines but South African officials were tardy. Their Plan A is one we supported: in October, joining India, Kenya and Eswatini in the World Trade Organisation to demand that there be no Intellectual Property restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines or treatments. But from the government side, there was practically no public lobbying, so our natural allies in the world’s civil society organisations – who can pressure their own governments to support the IP waiver – have not been mobilised.
Finally vaccines were acquired several weeks ago. However, after a million doses of AstraZeneca were imported from India’s Serum Institute, it was found the vaccine could not prevent mild cases of the 501Y.V2 variant, hence these supplies were dumped on other African countries. The already delayed programme was halted, with a delay and readjustment of the first phase of Covid-19 vaccination.
Although securing a vaccine that is not effective against the variant most common in South Africa could not be attributed to government’s lack of due diligence, the rush to buy from the private multinational pharmaceuticals under pressure of competing consumers is a major problem.
The basic problem is one that Salim Abdul Karim expressed recently: “South Africa is as guilty as many other countries. As much as we have committed to [the World Health Organisation’s strategy termed] Covax, we have gone around it. We have negotiated and paid high prices and secured vaccines early to jump the queue because there was political pressure to do so.”
Having placed orders for 31 million doses of Johnson & Johnson, phase one vaccination is underway: inoculating all the health care providers, followed by the most vulnerable sections, who are 60 and older. But here again the programme is lagging far behind, with a lack of political will to roll out the vaccines. Hence out of panic and desire to cover lost ground, the president has just announced that the completion of phase one vaccination will be rolled out concurrently with phase 1.
But problems have emerged with J&J in other countries, especially late delivery in Canada and USA. This could compound the problem of a slow roll-out, and the intention to vaccinate the adult population by the end of this year is already impossible, government admits, with a new deadline of February.
The delay in vaccination is not mainly due to ordering the wrong vaccine at the beginning of the plan, but is due to the private control and ownership of the pharmaceuticals and the patent rights which global capitalist institutions have established to protect them.
Firstly, the government’s rush to procure a vaccine, competing amongst wealthier countries, partly created the basis for government ordering a vaccine ineffective against the variant of Covid-19 now dominant in South Africa.
Had IP been waived, then countries could have shared access to global knowledge, and the extensive local pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity across Africa could have been put to good use, as is the case with AIDS medicines. Such sharing would have afforded countries an opportunity to test the efficacy of vaccines like AstraZeneca earlier on the new variants, before South Africa and other African countries ordered it.
Secondly, the fact that pharmaceuticals are privately owned, makes the vaccines more expensive. As shown twenty years ago with AIDS medicines, pharma capitalists strive to maximise profits amidst a pandemic.
As another example of healthcare profiteering, in early February Profmed refused to support government’s procurement of vaccines and distribution to those poor people who are not insured, even though this medical aid firm – like all the others – have huge surpluses because in 2020, anticipated costs they would have borne for surgeries and other treatment were curtailed due to lockdowns.
Due to Treasury’s commitment to austerity, when private health insurers fail to buy extra vaccines, this will certainly mean shortages and further delays. It is appalling that government’s vaccine roll out continues to be hindered by a Treasury that tries by all means to limit government borrowing.
The implementation of austerity began in 2020 just two weeks before Covid-19 hit South Africa, when public health officials knew it was coming. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni cut R3.9 billion from the healthcare budget and also violated a written
contract to pay civil servants an inflation-adjusted wage. Then he froze posts in the health sector and cut wages further in real terms.
Under the circumstances of a for-profit healthcare sector and a neoliberal Treasury, government’s ambition to vaccinate 200 000 people a day will be impossible to reach.
Delays in the vaccine roll out are a disaster to not only the frontline workers, the aged and people with comorbidities. With scientist predicting a third wave that may be even more devastating than the first and second waves, SAFTU will place blame on the shoulders of government for deaths that could have been avoided.
We are extremely concerned about the mismanagement of the healthcare system, continued Covid-19 tenderpreneurship corruption, worsening retrenchment levels, and the lack of government fiscal support to so many suffering communities.
While the ruling party twiddles its thumbs over whether corrupt officials should belatedly step down, the possibilities of a new outbreak and new variants are not getting the attention they deserve. We need to be on a war footing to defeat corporate profiteers and the neoliberal Treasury.