How the ANC dropped the ball on vaccines

John Steenhuisen says the total cost of mass vaccination would about that of one day of hard lockdown


Vaccine rollout would have been well underway with a DA national government.

This is my first newsletter of the year. On behalf of the Democratic Alliance, I wish you and your family a healthy, happy 2021.

Last year was exceptionally dark and this year is looking darker still. Lives continue to be lost, businesses continue to shutter, and investment drains away, while our heavily indebted government claims to have no money to compensate households suffering the worst ravages of lockdown restrictions.

But the development of a safe, effective vaccine for Covid-19 means there is light at the end of this tunnel.

There is no higher priority for South Africa this year than to roll out vaccines. We are in a race against this virus, which is mutating as it transmits, and we will only win this race with a swift, efficient vaccine rollout. Specifically, frontline workers and the most vulnerable among us need to be vaccinated by end April to avoid the worst ravages of a third wave as we head into winter.

Had the DA been in national government, we would be vaccinating thousands of people each day right now, as is underway in many other middle-income countries.

But our incapable ANC government has massively dropped the ball on acquiring an adequate supply of vaccines, failing to place orders with manufacturers on time, even as it insists on being the sole procurer. So thousands of lives, millions of jobs and billions of rands of tax revenue will be lost unnecessarily this year and next as the government continues to use the blunt instrument of blanket restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Ever since Covid-19 hit our shores, the DA has been calling on government to focus on the big, high-impact interventions, given South Africa’s precarious situation of limited resources and wiggle room.

It’s all about priorities.

As I set out in my speech on Monday, the three biggest interventions are building healthcare capacity, rolling out a proper testing and tracing programme to isolate the virus, and rolling out vaccines. Government has failed on all three while going all out on often petty, meaningless lockdown restrictions. Only in the DA-run Western Cape province was healthcare capacity boosted and an efficient testing and tracing programme undertaken.

The DA understands that when it comes to vaccines, no effort is too great nor price too high so that we can fully reopen our economy. Consider that a full rollout programme is estimated to cost R8.6 to 16.4 billion, about the cost of one day of hard lockdown - R13 billion - and a fraction of the R389 billion of economic output lost in 2020 due to lockdown.

Yet Ramaphosa’s government has shown unforgivable disinterest (see here and here) in acquiring vaccines, with the result that South Africa is now at the back of the queue and scrambling to pick up any scraps we can, at double the price. As a group of eminent scientists put it:

This lack of foresight will visit on us the consequences of the greatest man-made failure to protect the population since the Aids pandemic, when we refused to provide life-saving medicines out of choice and against the desperate pleas of horrified medical and humanitarian agencies here and abroad and directly caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. A high probability of a reprise of this is a monumental and unforgivable failing.

To make matters worse, government initially sought to cover for their failure by downplaying the importance of vaccines. This is grossly irresponsible, given that 53% of adult South Africans are already suspicious of the vaccine. Fortunately, government retracted after a swift backlash from top scientists (see here and here).

Given the unconscionable corruption in PPE purchasing last year, we should not disregard the possibility that government’s reluctance to negotiate with vaccine manufacturers is because the politically connected are hoping for kickbacks from contracts with Russian and Chinese suppliers.

But perhaps they simply got their priorities wrong and were too focused on their (net harmful) blanket bans on alcohol, beaches and freedom of movement that have so distracted Police Minister Bheki Cele from doing his real job of fighting real crimes that contribute to real pressure on our trauma units.

Or perhaps they failed to prioritise funding and so missed the first two Covax payment deadlines and avoided direct negotiations with suppliers. Indeed, the national department of health offered lack of funds as the reason, blaming National Treasury for their reluctance to pay deposits.

In a damning interview last week, President Ramaphosa claimed that government’s failure to secure vaccines was because they couldn’t afford the risk of losing deposits if trials proved unsuccessful. Yet this is an outright lie, since the advance market commitments required to secure a supply of vaccines promise a refund for unsuccessful trials, as noted by Professor Shabir Mahdi, who headed up the vaccines trials in SA.

Whatever the true reason, the fact remains that President Ramaphosa was lying when he claimed government has been negotiating for the past six months, when in fact they only started serious negotiations this year. No matter how he spins it, he is fast losing people’s trust at a time when trust in his government is all important to secure a swift rollout once we receive a supply of vaccines.

He was also lying when he claimed in his address to the nation on 11 January that government has a comprehensive plan to vaccinate 40 million people this year. This is no more than wishful thinking, and virtually impossible to attain. Even 20 million will be an extraordinary undertaking.

Yet more evidence of the ANC government’s rank failure to prioritise vaccines is that corrupt, incapable Deputy President David Mabuza is heading the vaccine task team responsible for the rollout.

On The Inside Track yesterday, DA national spokesperson Siviwe Gwarube brilliantly unpacked the vaccine issue in discussion with WC Premier Alan Winde, health economist Professor Alex van den Heever, and DA shadow minister of finance, Geordin Hill-Lewis.

What is the DA doing about all this?

Firstly, we are applying maximum political pressure, which has succeeded in prompting the government to finally get serious about vaccines.

Secondly, in the Western Cape we are taking steps to acquire vaccines directly and readying for a swift rollout once we get supply.

Thirdly, we are pursuing legal action to compel government to provide a full, detailed vaccine procurement and distribution plan against which we can hold them accountable, like the mechanism by which they were finally forced to roll out HIV treatment.

Perhaps most importantly, we are preparing to contest the 2021 local elections, to offer South Africans an alternative to the incapable, uncaring ANC. Breaking the news this week of a vaccine tax hike, government said people will just have to “bite the bullet”. Well, most taxpayers don't have bullets, but they do have ballots, and 2021 is the year to make them count.

Warm regards,

John Steenhuisen