Fighting a poorly understood virus that works on weekends

First Published in Business Day on   July 8th, 2021   |   by   Isaah Mhlanga

Fighting a poorly understood virus that works on weekends

The vaccination programme must be ramped up aggressively to aid the economic recovery

Over the past 18 months we have gone from Alpha to Beta, Gamma and Delta, and now there is the Lambda variant of Covid-19. Each new variant originates in a different country and is reported to be more easily transmitted and deadlier than its predecessors.

Much of the world is dealing with a virus that is still poorly understood and whose evolution seems to repeatedly catch the best global minds in health and science unprepared. For SA there appears to be both the surprise emergence of new viruses, just like in other countries, and an SA-specific drag on decision-making. Decrypting which of these two contributes most to the slow vaccination rate is as clear as mud.

There are three elements at play where the government could communicate more transparently to help business, labour and civil society understand where we are in the Covid-19 fight and how the future is likely to look. First, the surprise element of new variants originating in other countries eventually reaching our shores with few proactive steps taken by local authorities.

The flight carrying 10 passengers that landed in SA on March 1 2020 carrying Covid-19 Patient Zero was a surprise. All other inbound travellers that brought new variants into the country were not a surprise. Measures could have been put in place to prevent new variants. Other countries now require visitors to quarantine at government-specified accommodation for several days and to test for Covid-19 after that period before they can go on with their business. This could create a lifeline for the hospitality sector while reducing the risk of new variants coming in undetected. Yet this has not been implemented, if it has been considered at all.

Second, the procurement of vaccines has suffered setbacks due to vaccine hoarding by rich countries. The government could have been more proactive with procurement, but as we now understand it’s not as simple as we would like it to be. Thus, the problem is vaccine supply rather than budget constraints.

Third, the speed of the vaccination rollout has left questions unanswered. When Covid-19 hit China built a new hospital in 10 days. In preparation for the 2010 World Cup roads and stadiums were constructed under tight timelines, including at night and weekends. When the will is there, SA can deliver big projects.

Why is our vaccination programme so slow when people’s lives and livelihoods are at risk? Why is vaccination not done on weekends? It’s as if we expect the virus takes weekends off from ravaging communities, but it does not. It would make sense to continue vaccinations for seven days a week until vaccines are finished, then communicate to the nation that we are waiting for the next delivery. The country will understand that.

Not vaccinating at weekends while vaccines are available is irrational and puts lives at risk that would otherwise be protected. Budget issues for health-care workers working on weekends can be optimised by opening those centres that have more registered people while those with fewer registered people remain closed. In any case, it must not be a budget consideration to not vaccinate on weekends if vaccines are available.     

For SA’s economic recovery to be sustainable beyond 2021 the vaccination programme must be ramped up aggressively. Lockdown restrictions can break the circuit of transmission, but they are not the solution to the Covid-19 pandemic. Getting more people vaccinated quickly is the only durable way for lives to be saved and livelihoods protected, so that life can return to a semblance of normality.

The government’s response can be improved with available vaccines and help of the private sector. That needs urgency, because a lot is at stake.

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