Vaccine rollout: One of the great failures in democratic South Africa's history

That a paltry 0.3% of the population has been vaccinated as of 19 March stands as yet another milestone in the ever-growing list of calamities caused by the South African government's seemingly persistent belief that it can, through increased central control, solve complex social problems.

In the case of the vaccination program, the government presumed that it could take care of the procurement and roll-out of enough vaccines for around 40 million citizens (the magical herd-immunity number). At the time of writing, the results are heartbreaking – hardly surprising.

According to Our World in Data, South Africa administered 0.31 doses per 100 people by 22 March; for comparison, our peer countries have performed as follows: Brazil, 6.6 per 100; Russia, 5.7 per 100; China, 5.2 per 100; and India, 3.5 per 100. Regarding other African countries, Rwanda is at 2.6 per 100; Ghana, 1.35 per 100; and Senegal, 0.95 per 100.

While other governments worked pro-actively to procure vaccines, South Africa's dawdled – a job no doubt made all the more difficult after years of fiscal mismanagement, waste and corruption, most notably in the black holes that are the vast majority of state-owned enterprises.

To place the roll-out of vaccines in the hands of the state is a dubious undertaking for even the most capable governments. To imagine for even a minute that the South African state could be capable of managing such a complicated and vitally important process borders on the criminal. Apart from any Covid-19-related suffering and deaths, the state's mismanaged and protracted roll-out will have long-term economic effects: from the significant harm caused by the lack of potential international tourists, to the highly likely life-and-business restrictions that will accompany any future lockdowns.

The country's healthcare workers – on the front lines for the past year, trying to save as many lives as possible while exposing themselves to Covid-19 – have no idea when they will all receive their jabs. At some point – indeed, we are probably past that point – the country's medical aids need to break with the 'plans' of the government and provide vaccines to healthcare workers as quickly and efficiently as possible. For all the grand talk of 'solidarity'
 on the part of government, fanciful wishes and ideals cannot fix the endemic structural and roll-out problems that are part and parcel of any state plan.

It is one thing to pay the money and procure the vaccine – it is an entirely different matter to then get those shots into arms. What steps are taken in Pretoria might not work in Ngwathe. What works in Cradock might not work in Makhanda. One of the most basic problems with 
all grand government plans, is that they operate from a one-size-fits-all starting point. And once the process is underway, the people involved cannot adapt and respond to unforeseen challenges as effectively as they might have, had they worked in the private sector.

A fundamental underlying problem with the process that the government undertook – and that most governments around the world accepted – is that the state is the best vehicle to manage a challenge as complex as a global pandemic. In South Africa the state-enforced monopoly in electricity, Eskom, cannot even keep the lights on. But it was thought that government could effectively handle a pandemic, and the recovery process thereafter. 

Around the world, the gut reaction was not in favour of education and convincing nor was it to trust in citizens' ability to learn, adapt, and work together; it was simply accepted that the blunt hammer that the state was necessary to step in and implement hard lockdowns, trampling on decades of hard-won civil liberties and quality-of-life improvements attained through increased economic freedoms.

One ought not to discount the difficulties caused by the South African variant of Covid-19 – 501Y.V2 – and the alleged lack of efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against said variant. But the government was always playing catch-up, after taking months to secure 
any vaccine deals in the first place. For almost a year now, South Africans have been asked to sacrifice, to trust in the government, to suspend their lives indefinitely. That the government has failed with the vaccine roll-out will prove devastating in the coming months and years. And, as always, citizens will be asked to sacrifice, time and time again.

It is true that Covid-19 presented a new, dangerous threat to people's health. But instead of using nuance and reason, governments pursued the route of hard lockdown, to the ultimate economic, psychological, and other health-related cost of citizens. Poorer citizens suffered the most.

When you believe that, to tackle a new challenge, people's economic freedoms and civil liberties should be summarily suspended, you need to assemble some evidence to show that your chosen path is correct. Now, in failing to roll out the vaccines effectively, the South African government is not living up to what it promised.

The country's GDP contracted by 7% last year. To help the more than 11 million unemployed, and others whose businesses are on the very brink, the country needs an average of 5% growth for the next four years. This cannot be attained if we are to suffer through continual peaks and troughs of cases, with government constantly using hard lockdowns to 'fight' Covid-19.

Throughout the last year, some people have expressed concerns around private procurement of vaccines, and that such a process would exclude the majority of South Africans. But now they have a different worry, as the state's refusal to acknowledge its failures when trying to centrally control everything will ultimately result in continued harm caused by Covid-19, as well as the concomitant economic devastation.

This article was first published on The Daily Friend on 27 March 2021.

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