EDITORIAL | The government must admit our vaccine rollout is in deep, deep trouble

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Staff remove a consignment of vaccines from a plane at OR Tambo International Airport.
Staff remove a consignment of vaccines from a plane at OR Tambo International Airport.

Urgency, transparency absent around Covid-19 vaccine efforts – and it needs to change.

The South African government is not being honest with its citizens about the realities of our Covid-19 vaccine efforts.

They have admitted we are likely to miss vaccination targets. But they are not saying why, or by how much.

The untenable stranglehold on information needs to be addressed, while recognition must be given to the fact that the current pace of vaccinations administered to healthcare workers is too slow.

If not for the dedication and foresight of a few individuals outside the health department, the 168 413 frontline healthcare workers vaccinated so far would still be unprotected.

South Africa has secured, belatedly, deals for 43 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, of which nearly half is of the two-dose Pfizer variety.

This year, the country must vaccinate at least 67% of its roughly 37 million eligible adults.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and his department for months delayed engaging seriously with vaccine makers, as our reporting has repeatedly shown, and have since cited the financial risk of striking deals for unproven drugs too early as the reason for their dithering.

The real, deadly cost of not having struck those deals sooner will now be borne by our healthcare workers, the chronically ill, the elderly and our poorest compatriots – as they have the initial surges.

Our economy, the lives and livelihoods of more than 58 million people, will continue to be impacted by these delays for years to come.

Since the start of the local epidemic, News24 has pursued reporting to emphasise the lack of transparency around government's response and successfully pushed the health department to publish key scientific advisories through filing Public Access to Information Act requests.

An urgent change in the official approach to vaccine procurement and information sharing is needed, with more regular public updates and detailed briefings to highlight specific concerns around vaccine procurement, challenges with the rollout and realistic targets.

Mkhize and President Cyril Ramaphosa need to dispense with the niceties, stop bleating about vaccine nationalism and how the country has become a victim, and approach vaccine distribution and procurement with the same alacrity with which they pursue political campaigns.

Our leaders contributed to the circumstances that led to South Africa being left even further behind in vaccine access than we would have been.

As of Wednesday, more than 51 634 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 have been reported and Mkhize has so far failed to seriously acknowledge excess mortality research that shows the actual death toll may be double the confirmed total.

As this coronavirus mutates and variants spread, our leaders must start to recognise that they have now moved beyond the realm of the uncontrollable circumstances of a pandemic and are placing lives at risk – not only at home, but the world over.

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