Using the old South African trope of eliding the 27-year-in-office government from any blame or accountability for its missteps was given a whole new meaning on Monday.
The usual all-purpose, all-weather ruse of blaming apartheid is more challenging in respect of the novel coronavirus which only took root here last March, almost 26 years after the unlamented National Party government exited the Union Buildings.
But facing the crashing failure to date of his government’s (non) vaccine rollout plan, President Cyril Ramaphosa tried his best to invoke the spirit of the blame game and saddle up the old apartheid warhorse for the purpose.
Visiting the manufacturing facility at Aspen Pharmacare in the Eastern Cape, he blasted developed countries for hogging vaccines saying “vaccine apartheid” must come to an end, according to news reports of his visit.
This remark led Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser to note that so-called “‘vaccine apartheid’ is a phenomenon which apparently unfairly privileges countries that planned ahead to buy vaccines over those that did not.”
Of course the all-powerful “scientifically led” national coronavirus command council was too busy last year banning the sale of cooked chickens, slip slops and booze and cigarettes to bother about lesser matters such as vaccine acquisitions.
And it is hardly the hogging of vaccines by the world’s rich which is the core of the issue. After all, countries of the exact economic size of SA (Ireland and Chile for example) are streets ahead of us on the vaccine rollout front. And we are still behind such economic minnows as Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal, all of which outpace us on the vaccination front.
Today marks exactly two months since the presidency of SA released a breathless media alert datelined January 31 2021, advising proudly that Ramaphosa, deputy president David Mabuza (who — invisibly — chairs the “Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccines”) and other dignitaries would be on hand the next day for an airport photo op, “to receive SA’s first consignment of Covid-19 vaccine, produced in India under license from AstraZeneca, in collaboration with the University of Oxford”.
“The arrival of the first consignment at OR Tambo Airport marks the start of the vaccine rollout which President Ramaphosa announced is as the largest and most complex logistical vaccine undertaking in SA’s history.”
Except we should know by now that Ramaphosa and his government are not so great on either complexity or logistics, from energy to transport to hospital care and maintenance, take your pick. And, famously or infamously, not a single AstraZeneca vaccine was administered here.
On his Monday Aspen Pharmacare visit, in addition to his overblown jeremiad on “vaccine apartheid”, Ramaphosa changed rhetorical gears into understatement mode to explain that, in terms of its inoculation targets, “we have lost a little bit of time”. Fear not, was the presidential message here: “We are still on target in terms of our phase and we are now going to speed up the whole process of getting these vaccines.”
This gobbledegook and contradictory utterance is meant to explain that we are in fact 75% off target of the April deadline to vaccinate 1.2 million health workers. And of the target to vaccinate 40 million South Africans by year end, announced in January, “fuhgeddaboudit” as Tony Soprano once advised.
And when apartheid is not the culprit, there is always science as a handy alibi for lack of planning, procurement and progress. Here Ramaphosa explained: “You will remember that we acquired vaccines initially from India (of the famous airport apron presidential welcome sort) and through scientific processes, we found that they were not efficient for the variant that we have.”
Hence the decision by a government which is pathologically neuralgic about selling even its most wasted assets (see SAA for example) to flog our entire stock of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines in mid-March.
But the “science” does not tell us that Oxford/AstraZeneca is redundant or unfit for purpose.
Rather, leading immunologist Prof Shabir Mahdi, who led the trials here, wrote in February: “There remains strong biologically plausible reason to expect the AstraZenaca vaccine will protect against severe disease due too the B.1351 (so called South African strain) variant, likely to be of similar magnitude as the J&J vaccine.”
Then there is the cost factor: Ramaphosa might rail against rich countries, but the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab was offered and scaled at cost of about $3 (R45) per dose, versus $15 (R225) to $30 (R450) for other vaccines.
Let us discount the usual explanation for the inexplicable decision-making process about here that is, money changed hands. That was the likely explanation for our other strategic sale, the flogging off our strategic oil reserve a few years back.
And ignoring the temptation of suggesting some or other covidtrepeneur was behind the vaccine sale, or some or other middle man or woman benefited, the likely explanation in vaccine-starved SA was provided by “an enemy”.
As Ace Magashule manoeuvres to use his 30-day wriggle room to escape the coils enmeshing him from the marathon ANC NEC meeting, he did offer the thought recently that the constitutional, legally recognised official opposition in parliament was “the enemy”. And while Ace likes the Guptas and the Zumas, he detests “the enemy”.
So “enemy number one”, the leader of the opposition DA, John Steenhuisen, provided us with a clue as to the mystery behind the sale.
He wrote on Human Rights Day that “the most likely explanation is that we don’t have a rollout plan that is detailed enough to implement”. Especially as the vaccines sold off were due to expire at end of April.
Vaccines that could, even as stopgap and especially over the superspreader of the forthcoming Easter weekend, have saved lives, and stopped the strain on our hospitals, have been shipped away from here.
But never fear. Ramaphosa said “government is not sleeping on the job”. Some of its bizarre, wide-awake decisions in cauterising this plague suggest it would be better if they were.