REVIEW - Skepticism Surrounds South Africa's Mass Vaccination Campaign

JOHANNESBURG (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 06th February, 2021) The scandal surrounding the South African government's alleged corruption in the procurement of personal protection equipment (PPE) is a lingering facet bothering opposition political parties as the country prepares for its mass vaccine rollout.

Throughout last fall, the South African authorities came under fire for a series of irregularities in COVID-19 tenders. National watchdog found that the government paid up to five times the recommended price for PPE in some cases. Johannesburg was also criticized for its failure to tackle graft in the regions. For example, an isolation facility in one of the provinces turned out belonging to a state official.

The opposition now wants the Department of Health to conduct daily COVID-19 vaccination reports similar to the ones it has been reporting on infections and deaths. Concerns surround the national and provincial readiness and the safety and security of vaccines, as well as power outages that may disrupt the cold storage facilities, in which vaccines will be stored.

GOVERNMENT CLAIMS DECENT PREPAREDNESS

South African Health Minister Zweli Lawrence Mkhize was addressing members of the parliament's Portfolio Committee on Health when these issues were brought to his attention.

"We need provision of vaccines to create immunity for resistance to the viral infection. We are confronted by huge pressure. There are too many things happening all at the same time. I do not think that South Africa has run out of time because we will start vaccinating soon 40 million people will be vaccinated. I am aware that there is a global supply shortage because the countries that are producing the vaccines also have to vaccinate their populations. However, we discourage vaccine nationalism, those countries want to fulfill their needs, we understand, but we also need provision," Mkhize said.

According to the health minister, the government has all necessary provisions put in place for the start of rollout. This includes appropriate storage conditions for cold-chain vaccines at guarded Biovec facilities and an electronic system where people can register for vaccination.

"Look it won't be smooth, there will be new lessons, mistakes will be learnt and we will take it in our strides. We will find the challenge and move on. Lessons learnt from other countries are breakages of freezers and vehicles," Mkhize continued.

According to the minister, South Africa's campaign will include two phases, with the first one covering front-line medical workers and workers of essential community services and the second one all the rest. Mkhize said that some 68,000 persons from the first category already signed up to get a shot via the digital register, as of Friday.

The first batch of vaccines arrived in South Africa this past Monday. The country has contracted 1.5 million doses from the Serum Institute of India, 20 million doses from Pfizer and 12 million doses via the global COVAX facility, as listed by the minister.

"We are in talks and agreements will be seen with China's Sinopharm, and the Gamaleya Institute in Russia, which has produced Sputnik V and came out with a good and impressive efficacy," Mkhize added.

Mkhize also stressed that the government was interested in cooperating both with private and public sector actors countering COVID-19.

"To avoid fraud and corruption we have tightened all logistics' and administration. Corruption watch has come on board to work with us. We are determined that the process is going to be transparent and we will have a successful campaign," the minister said.

OPPOSITION WANTS GREATER CLARITY, TRANSPARENCY

The right-wing Freedom Front Plus party asked Mkhize about how the government was going to accomplish its goal of vaccinating 40 million people by the year-end if the current pace of supplies will be enough to vaccinate only around 700,000 people. Additionally, the party raised the issue of accessing the digital vaccination register for citizens residing in areas with poor or no internet connectivity or simply no equipment.

The populist National Freedom Party's head, Ahmed Munzoor Sheik, expressed readiness to take the vaccine and lead his community by example, but demanded that the government make the essential information about vaccines available to him and other community leaders.

"Some of the vaccines have a high efficacy rate. What is the rationale of stocking from Johnson & Johnson and Aspen if other countries have a higher efficacy rate than those?" Munzoor Sheik asked Mkhize, to which the latter replied by citing the World Health Organization as saying that any vaccine with efficacy rate higher than 50 percent was acceptable.

Munzoor Sheik also expressed concerns about the government appearing to keep confidential the fact that vaccine developers would not be liable should anything go wrong.

The Democratic Alliance's Hassan Ismail expressed her unhappiness with the government about the late acquisition of the first batch of vaccines.

"Many South Africans are skeptical with the vaccine, and how do we know if they are safe? As a government, you bought from the Serum Institute at double the price. You should have had explored other options," Ismail said.

The Economic Freedom Fighters' Naledi Chirwa urged the government to focus on the production of a local vaccine. According to the politician, the party would also more awareness raising among the public on the culture and effects of vaccination.

"We need to educate our people on the vaccines," Chirwa said.