OPINION | Covid-19 vaccine rollout: Lighting the path to economic recovery

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A health care worker register an elderly man ahead of vaccinating him with Pfizer vaccines at the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston.
A health care worker register an elderly man ahead of vaccinating him with Pfizer vaccines at the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston.
Michele Spatari / AFP

Our triumph over Covid-19 through the vaccination programme could unleash an economic recovery greater than we might imagine, writes Melene Rossouw.


There's only one way that South Africa will emerge victorious on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic – and that's if nearly seven in every 10 people accept the invitation to be vaccinated.

The good news is that, as Phase 2 of the national vaccination programme gets under way, that target seems achievable. The latest Nids-Cram survey, published last week, shows that 71% of South Africans want the vaccine. Reaching that target can deliver considerable gains.

Besides the obvious benefit of taking the vaccine (immunity from the virus), there is another excellent potential impact: the reinvigoration of the economy, which can be sustained for years after the virus is beaten.

Our triumph over the virus through the vaccination programme could unleash an economic recovery greater than we might imagine. This is true now and will remain steadfast despite queries about particular vaccines or the details of the rollout programme.

Economic consequences 

The economic impact of successful vaccination programmes is the focus of a growing area of research which the pandemic will further stimulate no doubt. The research that exists, points to several critical economic consequences that are likely to be significant for a middle-income economy like South Africa.

We have seen the devastating economic impacts of the pandemic in South Africa, with an estimated three million job losses at its height and an economic contraction in 2020 of some 7% compared to 2019.

READ | Serjeant at the bar: South Africa's anti-vaccination problem needs to be solved politically

While no local calculations are publicly available, examples from other countries illustrate the benefits of reducing the pandemic's long-term and broader economic costs when considering not only deaths, but also the impact of those who survive but suffer ongoing ailments.

Harvard economists David M Cutler and Lawrence Summers calculated in a recent article that Covid-19 would cost the US economy some $16 trillion – 90% of the GDP of the world's biggest economy, or some $200 000 per household of four.

Such sobering numbers prove to underline the argument that we cannot expect to prevail through a continuing pandemic, with cycles of lockdown and relief, with no end in sight. We need vaccinations to break that cycle.

Financial benefit 

We have to stop infections from spreading, and the resultant development of new and possibly more deadly variants requiring new or adjusted vaccines. Each time this happens, in addition to the human toll, the economic costs rise. Conversely, preventing outbreaks and stopping new variants has a definite financial benefit.

In the face of potentially significant vaccine hesitancy in South Africa – both Nids-Cram and an earlier HSRC survey show that a third of the population have yet to be convinced of the value of vaccines – it's vital that we understand and appreciate that a vaccination programme that achieves herd immunity (in South Africa's case, some 67% of the population) is the only way out.

For those sceptical about the effectiveness of vaccination programmes, history provides rich evidence otherwise.

Authors Professor David Bloom, Professor David Canning and Mark Weston point out in The Value of Vaccination that:

· smallpox, which claimed two million lives a year, was wiped out by 1979 after a massive worldwide immunisation campaign, 

· polio cases fell from over 300 000 per year as recently as the 1980s to just 2 000 in 2002 

· Since the World Health Organisation's Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in 1974, the number of reported measles deaths has dropped from six million to less than one million per year

The same authors cite a study from the late 1990s in Mpumalanga, which showed that a mass measles immunisation campaign of 1996 and 1997 delivered a benefit-cost ratio of 2.27 while another study in Japan on the benefit-cost ratio of subsidised influenza vaccinations for the elderly was estimated at 22.9. That means that the economic benefits in Japan were nearly 23 times the cost of the vaccination programme.

READ | Opinion: Why vaccinate? Lessons from polio and many other diseases

Research evaluating heath policy responses in KwaZulu-Natal to the pandemic there and published in respected journal The Lancet showed that every Covid-19 death averted, "equated to 16.8 life-years…" saved.

The Value of Vaccination authors point to another study which shows that a one-year increase in life expectancy improves labour productivity by some 4%. They calculated the potential "rate of return" in economic benefit on the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) programme, which was launched in 2000 to be as high as 18 percent.

The authors point to recent academic work on the effects of health on incomes.

"The experience of development over the past half-century shows that good health fuels economic growth, just as lousy health strangles it. Healthy children perform better at school, and healthy adults are both more productive at work and better able to tend to the health and education of their children.

"Healthy families are also more likely to save for the future; since they tend to have fewer children, resources spent on them go further, thereby improving their life prospects. Finally, healthier societies may be a stronger magnet for foreign direct investment and tourism than those where disease poses a constant threat."

Vaccination programmes can also be critical in reducing social inequality. Research published in BMC Public Health and citing two studies said "the greatest gains may be in sections of the population who are disadvantaged in terms of their existing health or their socioeconomic status, thus reducing health inequalities."

It referred to a study of delivering a package of five vaccines in Ghana, which found that children from poorer households benefit more from immunisation than those from relatively better-off households.

In his 2021 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa urged us first to beat the virus and then to accelerate our economic recovery. But we can do better than that – by doing both at once.

Phase 2 of the vaccination programme is now under way, concentrating on the elderly. Phase 3 is scheduled to start in October. Success is vital for the nation's physical and economic health.

Beating our viral villain through an effective vaccination programme is more significant than simply surviving the pandemic. It can restore lives and livelihoods and deliver the economic prosperity that we crave.

Melene Rossouw is lead volunteer for the Siyabuya Movement. 

* Siyabuya aims to engage in active citizenry to improve their fortunes and the lives of those around them. For more information about the movement, visit siyabuya.org.za.

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