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Covid and South Africa: What we’ve learnt so far abou...

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Covid and South Africa: What we’ve learnt so far about vaccines and the economy

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Born in Cape Town, Natale Labia lives in Milan, Italy, and writes on the economy and finance. Partner of private equity firm Lionhead Capital Partners. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

Since the first jabs against Covid-19 in late 2020, according to Bloomberg, 381 million shots have been administered in 126 countries, with the current run rate being almost 10 million shots a day. At this pace, it will take about three and a half years for the world to reach the generally accepted critical level of 75% immunity.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Economically, socially and psychologically, humankind is in a race to attain herd immunity before the virus has the chance to mutate into new vaccine-resistant strains.

The South African government has been completely lacking in this essential area. Similar economies and countries are leagues ahead of South Africa, a depressing state of affairs that was both avoidable and inexcusable. According to Bloomberg, thus far SA has inoculated 147,753 people, which is 0.25% of the population, a glacial rate at which it will take more than 10 years to reach 75%.

While there is no doubt South Africa is behind in this important race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Indeed, this situation might even be to the country’s advantage if the government and health authorities can learn from other first movers’ experiences and mistakes.

The first lesson is that, when it comes to vaccines, communication matters. Europe’s vaccine roll-out has been plagued by many problems, but the most damaging is that there has been no coordinated and consistent message on how vaccination will happen.

With the supply chain in tatters, AstraZeneca became the fall guy for failing to deliver requisite quantities of a vaccine of which the efficacy was supposedly questionable. French President Emmanuel Macron stated the British/Swedish jab was “quasi-ineffective”, right before Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi blocked an export of the vaccines to Australia on the grounds that it was essential. Despite the vaccine passing the stringent measures of the European Medicines Agency, reports have emerged that it causes blood clots and it has been blocked in 17 EU member states. As a result of this communication shambles, Europeans are increasingly wary of taking the AstraZeneca jab.

SA needs to get this right. President Ramaphosa needs to tell South Africans what jabs are safe, when they will be rolled out, who will do it and what the order of recipients will be.

Second, when it comes to the strategies for rolling out the jabs, there is not one perfect system, but countries must leverage off the existing strengths in their healthcare systems. Israel has a world-beating private vaccine network that was perfect for the job. The UK used its centralised public National Health Service to roll it out nationally. Europe, by contrast, has been a mess. The EU and national governments have looked to the usually dependable regional health systems, resulting in a lack of co-ordination. Now Italy has reversed course and will be using the army to build the vaccine logistics chain. SA has a world-beating private healthcare system, First-World health insurers and, in Aspen, a world-class vaccine manufacturer. The government should look to empower these capabilities to deliver vaccines nationally.

Third, vaccines need to be rolled out fast. Despite having had a catastrophic pandemic, the US health authorities have understood that getting vaccines out quickly albeit imperfectly is better than trying to overthink the system. By contrast, Germany has been left wanting. Germans have to negotiate a complex booking platform online. The lesson for SA is: don’t try to do it perfectly, just do it.

Finally, there is nothing more important. Forget about saving the economy, SAA, the Zondo Commission, free university tuition, even Eskom. All these things are trivial compared with getting out of the pandemic.

Right now, SA is in the calm before the storm of the third wave. This is likely to hit as the country heads into winter, which, along with virulent new strains, could make it the most deadly and destructive yet. This is the moment the government should be using to get vaccines out. Let’s hope that at some point someone in government realises this. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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