“Putting the moron into oxymoron” struck me as the right lens to view the latest restrictions and beach closures announced on Monday by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Still, he is the messenger — here and in so many instances — for the whims, prejudices, non-scientific and often evidence-free diktats of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
She is certainly not blushing after the serial blemishes she racked up when, a staggering six months late, the Western Cape High Court delivered a bill of indictment against her in the BAT cigarette-ban case.
Last Friday the court held the minister in contempt of the constitution and her purported reasons for arbitrarily banning the sale of tobacco products under lockdown were found to be “unconvincing”, lacking in evidence and an overreach of ministerial power over the rights of the citizen.
Untroubled by this slap-down, the minister’s latest wheeze on beach and bathing bans is about to be judicially tested. One hopes the courts might summons a little more speed and urgency in weighing the latest challenge.
In essence, the issue is this: why is there a total ban on beach use in the Garden Route and Eastern Cape and only a partial ban for seven festive season high days and holidays in KwaZulu-Natal? Or in respect of Cape Town, which has a huge Covid-19 surge right now, there is no outright beach bathing ban on any day at all.
Multiple court actions are about to be unleashed, from various Garden Route tourism and accommodation operators, local governments and the DA. Perhaps the absence of the KZN “nuanced approach” when it comes to the opposition-led Western Cape is the best explanation: politics trumps science.
Hopefully this time the somnambulant courts in Cape Town will evince a slightly less leisurely approach than in the tobacco case. Meantime, by all accounts, the tourism sector in the Garden Route is an economic bloodbath — up to 25% of profits for many hotel and B&B outfits are derived over the festive season and mass cancellations are now the order of the day.
Ramaphosa might argue, in his defence, that the extraordinary surge of the second wave of Covid-19, likely to head beyond a million cases soon and 75-plus deaths every day, justifies an extreme response. Even though that does not explain the extreme inconsistencies in the ad hoc blanket ban in one place (Garden Route), differential restrictions in another (Durban) and absence of any closures (Cape Town) in the third instance.
But if the dilatoriness of the courts and the oddity of government decision-making is of concern to tobacco smokers and guest house operators respectively, the unpreparedness of government in procuring the life-saving, Covid-blocking vaccine procurement is a national disgrace.
Consider Ramaphosa’s comments on the subject. Last week he offered a statement of spectacular equivocation and typical hesitancy.
To wit: “It is anticipated that we could have access to a suitable vaccine by the second quarter of 2021 and will initially receive quantities for at least 10% of the population.”
Small mercies, though, for the fact that our president is not cut from the same extremist cloth as anti-vaxxer fundamentalist chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Ramaphosa in the same remarks went on to indicate that “this gives us some hope”, but then cautioned, “it will take some time before we can vaccinate enough South Africans … and it will be a costly undertaking”.
No lies there. Except during this unprecedented pandemic government has other priorities, which do not include saving the lives of its citizens.
Just one indication: the limited 10% of the population who will benefit from SA finally signing up to the Covix procurement mechanism under the aegis of the World Health Organisation (WHO) owes nothing to government funding. The R327m required for participating was stumped up by the private sector-led and funded Solidarity Fund. The same government last month, though, found R10.5bn to pump into dead-duck SAA. It did so by raiding other ministries’ budgets, including the department of health, which was cut by R650m for this exercise in ideological vanity and vainglory.
South Africans look with envy to the UK, where mass inoculations are commencing with the “90%-effective” Covid vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech. Correctly, informed commentary notes that in respect of the required cold-supply chain needed to store the shots at lower than -70°C, SA lacks facilities and, crucially, the funds to purchase the equipment to warehouse this vaccine.
And while we can argue about which at-risk population demographic should, in late 2021, benefit first from limited supplies of a Covix-generated vaccine, there is surely no argument that our health workers right now should be offered a life-saving Pfizer shot if it can be safely stored and properly funded?
On the funding, beyond the generosity of the Solidarity Fund, the World Bank in October approved an envelope of $12bn (about R178bn) for developing countries, such as SA, “to finance the purchase and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments for its citizens”. It is part of a $160bn (R2,3tn) emergency health response, intended as a low-cost loan facilitation with minimum conditionality.
For unexplained reasons, cash-strapped SA has apparently yet to apply for the funding.
And on storing the vaccine at sufficiently cold temperatures, last week local helium producer Renergen advised businessinsider.co.za that it can keep the Pfizer vaccine at optimal ultra-cold storage levels, “at minus 70 for up to 30 days without the use of electricity and regardless of ambient conditions”.
Has the department of health or the SA Health Products Regulation Authority (SAHPRA) been swarming all over the Free State facility to check out its efficacy, with a view to importing the vaccine right now for our health workers?
Don’t bet your Christmas stocking on this. Other priorities and different ideologies likely apply.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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