In this country, there are two specific duties that the Constitution imposes upon our government: the duty of accountability to those who live here and the duty to vindicate the right of everyone to have access to health care services. This is qualified by the provision that the State must take reasonable legislative and other measures within its available resources to achieve the progressive realisation of the right.
Regrettably, the government appears to have failed to fulfil both these obligations. It is astounding that President Cyril Ramaphosa has not held one proper press conference in which the press can ask questions about government’s Covid-19 policy. Remember that these questions are asked on behalf of an anxious nation. Even Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, neither of whom have a scintilla of Mr Ramaphosa’s democratic pedigree, have conducted multiple press conferences on their governments’ Covid-19 policies.
The public has a right to be informed, for example, of the steps been taken to roll out a vaccine, the widespread distribution of which is critical to any viable recovery of the economy, let alone the prevention of unnecessary deaths. An accountable government does not only employ media set pieces; it allows the public through the media, to ask a host of questions on issues that affect their lives. It needs to tell the country how it proposes to progressively realise the right of access to life-saving vaccines.
We at the Daily Maverick have tried to interview members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee. Prof Salim Abdool Karim has responded that he is on holiday (fair enough). From the co-chair Prof Marian Jacobs we have not received the courtesy of a reply. We wish to ask one of them some serious questions about vaccine policy, about which the public is entitled to direct and specific answers. As members of a body that serves the public, it is the least they should do.
And that brings us to the right to access to health services. The narrative told to the public continues to change. At one point the nation was told that Johnson & Johnson would manufacture millions of doses of the vaccine in South Africa. Then the story is changed to some vaccines will be available by the end of the first quarter of 2021, and most recently by the end of the second quarter. Reports have suggested that only 3% of the population will receive the vaccine from Covax facility before the mid-2021. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Johnson & Johnson will produce significant quantities of the vaccine in South Africa but only for export. Then we are also told that government is negotiating with some of the pharmaceutical companies. But that is all we seem to be entitled to know.
This is simply not good enough. Given its constitutional obligations, the government is required to tell the country what plan it has developed to progressively realise the right to health.
At the very least there should be answers to the following:
How many people does the government plan to vaccinate by the end of June 2021 and again by the end of the year?
How will this number of vaccines be acquired?
How are vaccines sourced?
What is the role of the private sector? (For example, will the medical aid schemes be entitled to purchase vaccines directly from vaccine manufacturers?)
What distribution systems have been put in place to ensure an efficient and equitable distribution?
In a constitutional democracy such as ours, the principle of accountability and the right of access to health particularly for those most in need impose duties upon government. Or was nothing learnt from the nevirapine litigation brought by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)?
In the context of the present crisis, it is about time that the government treats the entire country with respect. That means informing all of us as to how we can move out of the present horror for so many by ensuring programme of widespread and safe vaccination. As citizens, there may be commercial details to which we are not entitled. But the present position where confusion and indeed despair reign is disgraceful, albeit not entirely unexpected. DM