Covid-19: The ANC's govt's three great failures – John Steenhuisen

DA leader says the govt has dropped the ball on vaccines, in the worst possible way

Only the big, meaningful interventions can help us now

18 January 2021

My fellow citizens,

We stand here at the start of a brand new year, and I am sure for many of you it is the most daunting new year you have ever faced.

None of us are sure how it will unfold and where we might find ourselves twelve months from now.

It is a scary time throughout the world, and the suffering and loss that many people experienced this past year would not have been imaginable a year ago. Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to all who suffered tragic loss in this time.

If 2020 has taught us one thing it is to expect anything. To be prepared to fight battles you never thought possible.

And so we find ourselves looking ahead at 2021 with a slightly different mind-set than in the past. We’re a little more battle-hardened, perhaps a little more cynical. Certainly more prepared for what we might encounter.

But while we’re looking ahead at all the possible threats and challenges of 2021, we should also take some time to look back at the year that has just passed. Because we need to learn lessons that have become apparent with the passage of time.

We need to look carefully and critically at every decision we made and every action we took over the course of the year, because we now have the opportunity to weigh them up objectively and rationally.

When you’re in the middle of a crisis, you tend to react to the threats you can see immediately around you. You take decisions based on partial information and projections.

You often fear the worst, and then err on what you believe is the side of caution.

You weight your decisions towards the immediate threat, even though you may know that there is a more ominous threat heading down the road. That is part of human nature.

But we can now look back and see those decisions and those actions from a wider perspective. We have enough distance in our vantage point to realise that Covid infection isn’t the only – or even the biggest – threat we face.

By now we can see the other threats too – the suffering, the hunger and the death caused by a collapsed economy. And we must realise that many of these were self-inflicted.

If we want to fight this, we have to fight all the threats, and not just the one that is new and frightening and on everyone’s lips.

We will have to take decisions that might be scary and we will have to do things that are hard, and not only focus on that which can be accomplished by the stroke of a pen and the gazetting of a regulation.

We cannot do things just for the sake of being seen to be “doing something” about the virus. We have to be effective.

Every single decision we take, every regulation we publish, every activity we ban, has to be rationally weighed up on a cost-benefit scale.

We have to learn to park our egos and let go of some of the control that a State of Disaster has given us. This is not a time to be flexing muscles and testing the boundaries of power.

It is a time for real leadership.

I want to draw your attention to something called the Pareto Principle. Some people call it the 80/20 Rule. This principle says that, in many instances, 80% of results will come from 20% of actions.

So when you have limited resources and limited time, you need to identify the areas that have the biggest potential for positive impact – the 20% – and focus almost all of your attention there.

We haven’t been doing that these past ten months. We’ve been tinkering with hundreds of bureaucratic interventions that have made ministers look busy and in control, but we’ve ignored the 20% that would’ve made almost all the difference.

And that’s because the 20% is hard. These are things that cannot simply be resolved with a curfew, a ban or an arrest. They are things that take insight, planning and complex execution.

So what is this 20% that our government should have been focusing on instead of shutting down soup kitchens and school feeding programmes, closing beaches and arresting surfers?

It comes down to just three things: building healthcare capacity, rolling out a proper testing and tracing programme, and procuring vaccines.

If our national government had done these three things right, our country would have looked very different today. And we certainly wouldn’t have suffered the tremendous self-inflicted harm of ten months of economic shutdown.

As far as our country’s healthcare capacity is concerned, we all know that this was the first big failure. The sole reason given for the initial lockdown was to buy time to put an adequate healthcare response in place – to source equipment, to repurpose hospital wards, to build temporary field hospitals and to redeploy staff.

Outside of the Western Cape this simply did not happen in any meaningful way, and the chaos you now see in hospitals in places like the Eastern Cape and KZN is a direct result of this failure.

The second failure was our testing and tracing programme. In countries where this was done early, thoroughly and systematically they managed to put out the fires of community transmission as they flared up, saving their citizens much death and suffering.

It soon became clear that we were not one of those countries, and the big holes in our testing and tracing programme allowed the virus to run rampant through communities.

But it is the third failure that might still prove to be the deadliest, and that is government’s inexplicable dereliction of its duty to acquire sufficient vaccines.

This will exact a very heavy price.

To achieve herd immunity we need to vaccinate two-thirds of our population – around 40 million people – and government has boldly committed to doing so by the end of this year.

Even if we already had every single vaccine we needed, government would have no chance of rolling out such a massive programme in this timeframe. They’d have to vaccinate, at the very least, 115,000 people every single day for the next 347 days, but possibly far more as some vaccines require multiple doses.

The chairperson of government’s own Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 says it’s impossible. Professor Shabir Madhi described the target as “not feasible by any stretch of the imagination.”

But here’s the thing, we don’t even have the vaccines. There is not one single Covid vaccine in the country yet. Other countries have already vaccinated millions of their citizens and we are yet to vaccinate a single person.

We don’t have them because when every other country was phoning and meeting and negotiating with suppliers as far back as May last year, our government put all its eggs in the WHO’s Covax basket, where we could barely get enough vaccines for 10% of our people.

And then they did nothing more until just the other day.

The Israeli Prime Minister personally spoke to the Pfizer CEO 17 times over the course of many months last year in order to secure his country’s supplies. They aim to have every citizen over the age of 16 vaccinated by the end of March. We’d be lucky if our programme has started by then.

Our government dropped the ball in the worst possible way, and President Ramaphosa knows it. That’s why he was on TV last Monday, scrambling to make a number of big but ultimately vague promises about vaccine deliveries.

He threw around numbers like 20 million doses secured, and spoke of hopefully having most of these in the first half of the year.

A few days later he told us of 270 million doses that had been secured for Africa through an AU programme, but not which vaccines these are, how many we’ll get and by when.

Earlier we were told of 1.5 million doses ordered through the Serum Institute of India, two-thirds of which are supposedly for delivery this month still.

But none of these numbers add up. In fact, it seems most of it is little more than wishful thinking and dishonest spin.

A Health Department spokesperson has admitted to the Rapport newspaper that the 20 million doses are still being negotiated, and it turns out even the deal for 1.5 million doses from India only had its heads of agreement signed a week ago.

No one has any idea where the AU pool of vaccines is supposed to come from, and this also seems more a case of fantasy than fact.

But even if these orders did exist, we have no idea which companies they’re supposed to be coming from, when they’ll get here, how much we’re paying for them, whether they’re single or multi-dose vaccines, who will get them first and how they will be stored and distributed.

If government can’t tell us any of these things, we have no reason to believe that they have indeed secured these orders.

The shocking truth is that our government has been caught napping on their most important task of this entire crisis. The cost of their failure will be immense.

It will cost us many, many lives, but we will also pay the high price of keeping our country in a permanent state of limbo – half locked down, half opened up – unable to ever recover from all this devastation.

The death and suffering caused by this broader economic failure thanks to on-going lockdowns will, over time, dwarf the losses suffered to the virus itself.

If ever there was an example of the 80/20 rule, it is the procurement of Covid vaccines.

This is true whether we’re talking about the money it will cost or the effort it will take. Procuring vaccines early and in large quantities is the 20% that would make the 80% difference.

And it appears government blew it.

I know government has spoken about the affordability of certain vaccines, as though budget constraints might have played a role. But we need to put that idea to bed very quickly.

Money was never the issue.

To put it into perspective, the full cost of vaccinating two-thirds of our population would be somewhere between R8 billion and R16 billion, depending on the vaccine type.

Every day that our country was on level 5 lockdown cost our economy R13 billion. That’s the cost of a full vaccination programme every single day.

The liquor industry estimates that the alcohol ban costs the government in the region of R2.5 billion every week in lost tax revenue. Six weeks of cigarette ban cost us around R3 billion in missed taxes.

These could have paid for a full vaccination programme several times over.

And consider that government is still going full steam ahead with the latest bailout of the failed South African Airways, this time to the tune of R10.5 billion. That’s another full vaccination programme right there.

And let’s not fool ourselves here. The R10.5 billion isn’t going to save SAA anyway, as the airline needs closer to R16 billion. And even if they were to get that, the chances are they will just fall back into bankruptcy again.

Money for vaccines is not the issue at all. And even if it were, the private sector would make up the shortfall in a heartbeat if it meant opening the economy up again.

The issue here is priorities.

Government stood before its greatest test yet, and it was asked to prioritise both the lives and the livelihoods of its citizens. It was asked to beef up our healthcare, it was asked to track and isolate the virus and it was asked to purchase vaccines for our people.

It did none of those things. Instead it sent police helicopters after kite surfers, it halted school feeding programmes, it closed down community soup kitchens and it shut down the one place where the virus struggles to survive: the great outdoors.

When the police minister boasts about having made over 300,000 lockdown arrests, while real crime spirals out of control in every single community, you know you are dealing with a government that has lost all sense of its priorities.

A country lacking leadership.

Countries with real leadership are vaccinating their citizens, as we speak, by the tens of thousands – even hundreds of thousands – every day and not waiting for scraps and leftovers from the world’s vaccine table.

Countries with real leadership didn’t quibble about the price of a vaccination programme, because they knew that whatever the cost may be, it would be a tiny fraction of the cost of inaction.

Countries with real leadership didn’t think twice about putting the safety of their people first.

Fellow citizens,

None of this is going to get any easier this year. Unless we make radical changes to both the way we respond to the Covid pandemic, and the way we respond to the economic crisis, 2021 will be as bad, if not worse, than 2020.

So let’s deal with the healthcare response first.

As our number one priority, we have to secure vaccines for 40 million South Africans, and we have to get a considerable portion of these in the next few months. Getting the bulk by the end of the year will be too late.

We’ll need to be done with the priority groups and on to the mass part of our rollout by April, or May at the very latest, to avoid a third wave as we head into winter.

So getting 20 million – or even 200 million for that matter – by the end of the year is not an achievement, it’s a failure.

This means getting vaccines through whichever channel we can. National government has already shown that they cannot perform this function – or at least not on their own – and so they will have to let go of the reins a little.

In the Western Cape, the provincial government has already started to explore its own procurement process. Not because it wants to go against national government, but because it has a sworn constitutional duty to protect its citizens by providing healthcare. And that is what they’re going to do.

But they’re certainly not alone in wanting to augment national government’s vaccine procurement. The private sector is also ready and able to step into this arena, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t.

We need every last vaccine, and it doesn’t matter who brought it in.

Then we will need absolute clarity from government on how they intend to manage the vaccination programme. No more double speak and spin.

We will need to know, in full detail, where our shipments of vaccines are coming from, how many doses will be in each shipment and when they will arrive. All of this will have to add up to the numbers government has been passing around.

We will need to know exactly what happens when these vaccines get here. How will they be stored and distributed, who will receive them first, and how will government communicate all of this?

We are now heading towards the end of January, and none of this has been made public. If the President does not provide a full plan that covers all the quantities and timelines, we will have no choice but to ask the courts to compel him to do so.

Our lawyers have already written to the President setting out the extent to which government’s strategy does not meet the constitutional requirements for a comprehensive vaccine rollout programme, in that it violates several constitutional provisions.

The failure to provide one or more Covid-19 vaccines timeously when these vaccines are available is a violation of people’s rights, in terms of Section 27(1) of the Constitution, to have access to healthcare services.

It is also a violation of government’s obligation in terms of Section 27(2) to take reasonable measures to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to access healthcare, as well as a violation of the right to life, as enshrined in Section 11 of the Bill of Rights.

This failure will no doubt be used by government to justify the extension of the State of Disaster and its regulations, which infringe on almost every right in the Bill of Rights, including the rights to human dignity, freedom of the person, privacy, free practice of religion and culture, freedom of movement, free practice of one’s occupation, property and education.

And finally, Section 1(c) of the Constitution enshrines the Rule of Law as a fundamental prescript, which requires that decision making be rational. There is no rationality in government’s failure to secure sufficient vaccines despite knowing early on how important they’d be and having had access to them.

In our letter we asked the President to reply within seven days explaining why, in his view, government has not infringed on these constitutional provisions.

We have also asked him, for the sake of transparency, to set out the details of government’s negotiations with vaccine suppliers. This reply must include the dates and the minutes of all the meetings with suppliers.

We also need to see a breakdown of government’s budget for both the acquisition and the rollout of the vaccines, covering public funds, private funds, donor funds and loans.

The President’s reply will have to provide the full rollout and administration programme, which has to include all the vaccine types, number of required doses, the dates that these will be available as well as how these will be stored and transported.

If the President provides satisfactory answers to all the questions put to him in the letter, we will work together with him to ensure that the programme has the best chance of success.

But if he fails to answer – or if his answers are lacking detail or evasive – we will take further legal action, as is our constitutional duty.

Government knows what it is like to be on the wrong side of such a legal challenge.

Two decades ago they were forced to provide – and then comply with – an anti-retroviral rollout plan for their HIV programme after also initially refusing to divulge the details.

We will not hesitate to go that route again.

What government will also have to do is launch a comprehensive communication plan on the importance of Covid vaccinations.

Already we are seeing a lot of misinformation and conspiracy theories around the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and some of it even spread by irresponsible politicians and judges.

Vaccines that have passed medical trials and have been certified safe and effective by our authorities are our only ticket out of this pandemic. We cannot afford to have this critical programme compromised by lies and fake news.

Government needs to step up and lead here.

But fighting the virus is only one part of the challenge. The other part is rebuilding our shattered economy. And this will require a commitment to reforms that we have not yet seen from the ANC government.

You may have heard plenty of stories about what the lockdown and all its restrictions have done to our economy, but it is only when you see the rows and rows of shuttered businesses in our towns and cities that you truly realise the extent of the carnage.

I recently passed through the Small Karoo towns of Montague and Barrydale on the R62, and the devastation of these towns’ economies just takes your breath away.

Barrydale used to be the most vibrant, tourist-friendly stop on the R62, with all its wonderful little eateries and shops lining the road. It now resembles a ghost town, with shop after shop and restaurant after restaurant boarded up, never to open again.

Each of those places represents not only someone’s dream and their life’s work, but also the livelihoods of dozens of employees and their families. And you can multiply Barrydale by hundreds of towns across the country.

Lives have been shattered, and mostly people ask me: For what? They want to know what exactly we gained when we sacrificed all of this. And I cannot give them an answer.

Undoing all that damage is not simply a case of flicking a switch back on. Lifting restrictions and permitting businesses to trade again with the stroke of a pen is the easy part.

The hard part is creating an environment in which they can give it their best shot. And right now we don’t have anything close to this kind of environment.

We’re back into rolling energy blackouts across the nation. And this in the middle of the summer and with economic activity severely reduced. There is no way we will rebuild our economy if Eskom cannot keep the lights on in the easiest possible circumstances.

What happens if the economy wants to pick up and businesses want to reopen? Where must those Megawatt-hours come from? What happens at the end of the summer when the cold spells hit?

If Eskom cannot cope now, they will never cope. And that is why they should be the first big reform undertaken by the ANC government. The alternative is simply not sustainable.

Many people have tried to calculate the cost of load-shedding to our economy over the years. One of the most conservative of these, by the CSIR back in 2019, put this at R60 billion for that year alone. Others have estimated it to be far higher.

That is money we cannot afford.

And now consider that we’ve had these rolling blackouts for a full 15 years already. It was supposed to be a temporary inconvenience, but you now have young people going into matric who can’t recall a time without load-shedding.

Eskom, as one giant, centrally controlled parastatal, simply does not work, and it will drag our country down with it.

The ANC has to stick its pride and its ideology in its pocket for once and do what every energy expert and economist is telling it to do: Break the utility up into separate generation, transmission and distribution entities, and let the state only hang on to the transmission grid.

Only by opening up the energy market to real competition will we be able to navigate this crisis and save our economy.

We have run out of all other options and wiggle room. The latest projected revenue shortfall in our budget is well over R300 billion. That is an oncoming train in a tunnel. Even the ANC must realise this by now.

There is no investment road show or talk shop that can stop this train. No serious investor will touch our economy when the spectre of rolling blackouts looms daily.

We are a country that has run out of money.

Already the president has had to tell the owners and employees of businesses stricken by the lockdown regulations that government has no more money with which to assist them.

We’re also hearing about District Municipalities that can’t pay wages until June.

Next comes basic service delivery, and then social grants. That’s how this movie ends. We have to change the script while we still can.

We cannot let all these things become the accepted normal in our country, as we have with load-shedding. We still have an opportunity to pick a path that takes us out of here, but not for much longer.

So let us choose this path with our children in mind. What exactly do we want them to inherit?

Should they inherit our R3.5 trillion national debt? No, they should not.

Should they inherit our dysfunctional power utility with its daily rolling blackouts? No, they should not. We have to reform Eskom now, so that energy production is normalised by the time they’ve grown up.

Should they inherit a broken education system where standards are lowered and results manipulated to create the illusion of success? No they should not, which is why we should stop bending the knee to unions like SADTU and send our kids back to school at the end of this month.

Should they inherit a fragile democracy that is open to manipulation by the government of the day? No, they should not. Which is why we cannot allow elections to be postponed this year.

If other countries can manage safe elections in these times, then so can we.

We have to, as a country, start doing the things that count. The 20% of actions that make the 80% of difference.

We can no longer hide behind the excuse of the pandemic.

We can no longer hide behind our country’s past.We can no longer hide behind outdated ideologies.

have a net negative effect.

Our situation is so precarious and so immediately threatening that only the big, meaningful interventions can help us now.

For the most part, the ANC government knows what these interventions are but they choose not to use them.

Boxed in on all sides by their ideology, their alliance partners and their culture of patronage, they choose to disregard the only actions that can save our country.

That choice must carry consequences.

This is a year in which voters get to judge all these failures and all these poor decisions.

Let this be the year in which citizens teach government where the power in a democracy lies.

Thank you.

Issued by John SteenhuisenLeader of the Democratic Alliance, 18 January 2021