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How does it feel to win the vaccine lottery? Wonderful … with tinges of guilt

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By Tim Cohen
18 May 2021 0

Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

South Africa’s mammoth vaccine effort has begun, and I was first in the queue. Well, not first but close to first. So much rides on this effort, literally thousands and thousands of lives. On the evidence of the first day, the prospects are, well, South African: A shambolic mess mixed with grand hopes, exceptional people and great joy.

The first day of the official vaccination drive against Covid-19 was so reminiscent of election day 1994: A small sense of history happening in your life, right in front of you, via the mundane format of a frustrating queue.

I was woken up at 3am on Monday by an SMS from the Department of Health informing me that my vaccine appointment was due in Somerset West eight hours later. I live in the Karoo, so this is a five-hour drive.

It was bewildering, hardly believable. The most curious thing was that my wife, who registered at roughly the same time, was not so lucky. We do share the same surname. How could that be? I didn’t know whether to go ahead and get the vaccination; it seemed wrong to do it without her. And why Cape Town for someone who lives so far away?

There was a number to dial, which I duly did. After due time, the call was actually answered. I asked these questions, and was given an explanation so obviously convoluted that it could only but be wrong. I was told if I had an official code, I could be vaccinated anywhere, and if I called back at eight, they would move my appointment somewhere closer. That too, as it happens, was entirely incorrect. As of now, the only places in the Western Cape where vaccinations are taking place are in Cape Town. Which raises the question: What on Earth have they been doing for the past six months?

I was unsure what would happen if I missed my appointment: Would I go to the back of the queue? How did they happen to select me anyway? I’m over 60 but not much. Surely they were starting with the oldest first, or at least those both older and with comorbidities? 

So, with some doubts, I got into the car in a mad rush and drove to Stellenbosch, arriving at Helderberg Hospital within the two-hour window, but just as the queue had got long enough to make actually getting a vaccine somewhat doubtful.

But from there, the experience was fabulous. The hospital’s sister on duty came out and shouted helpful information to all and sundry from the middle of the street, pushing the over-80s to the front of the queue, bringing out chairs for people who needed them (did they really not realise they would need chairs for people over 80?) She was generally bossy in a way you hope and expect a nursing sister will be. Somebody was in charge. Everybody would get vaccinated. There were enough vials. This was all worth it. 

But there were also information gaps. She had no idea how people had been selected. Why were we so lucky? Why did I get an appointment and not my wife?

And my mind went back to standing in a queue at election time, chatting with strangers around you, agreeing on the issues of the day, making jokes and being impatient in the friendliest possible way. A kind of haphazard, frustrating, disorganised grace; this is our way, with all the maddening shortcomings that entails. 

It turns out, I learnt later, people were selected on the basis of when they registered. Those who registered first were being selected first. The fact that I am a journalist possibly helped, because I heard that registrations for over-60s were open as it was announced and I registered immediately. 

The Department of Health calculated that it could probably handle everyone over 60 years old in batches at the same time, a complicated judgement but most probably the correct one. Unlike some countries, the proportion of the elderly population in South Africa is comparatively small: We are a young country. That is why everyone over 60 was chosen, as opposed to the over-70s first. And it was too difficult to try and vaccinate people with comorbidities first, because that would require a judgement about what comorbidities counted, and it could result in delays and possible queue jumping. 

Discovery CEO Adrian Gore pointed out in his useful letter to members that the over-60 population makes up 9% of the total population but accounts for 60% and 36% of Covid-related deaths and hospital admissions, respectively. But don’t worry, most everyone will get vaccinated, hopefully soon enough; South Africa has secured enough vaccines to cover 42 million people at this point, he wrote. Given the high vaccine demand globally, the delivery of these doses is spread over the year. The hold-up is not for lack of vaccines, but the need for them more urgently in other places, which is as it should be.

I phoned a friend afterwards; slightly triumphant, slightly shame-faced. He scolded me for feeling guilty for being at the front of the queue. It is not, in a sense, a privilege to get vaccinated; it is your civic duty, he said. You are removing yourself from the pools of potential infectors; you should get vaccinated as soon as you can, not because it’s about you, but because it is not about you. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]co.za
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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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