Opinion

JUDITH FEBRUARY: SA has a 'perfect storm' of issues during COVID-19 third wave

JUDITH FEBRUARY: SA has a 'perfect storm' of issues during COVID-19 third wave

opinion

In March last year South Africa went into a hard lockdown. Then, President Ramaphosa looked wholly in charge of the health crisis. At the same time, the Defence Force was activated to ensure that lockdown regulations were adhered to. It was, in the President’s words, a ‘mercy mission’. Of course, the SANDF intervention became mostly notorious for brutality towards the poor who bore the brunt of the lockdown.

Lockdown has its limitations. It is devastating for the economy and specifically for individuals who earn a living on the fringes of society. Yet a second hard lockdown was implemented in late December as hospitals were on the brink of collapse from an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases exacerbated by the festive season socialising.

Now, six months later, Gauteng is overcome by the ‘third wave’ and hospitals are under severe strain. This third wave is likely to hit the Western Cape and other provinces soon.

Into this unfortunate situation comes an acting Minister of Health, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Zweli Mkhize is on special leave after allegations that he benefitted from a R150 million contract won by Digital Vibes. The timing could not have been worse. In the middle of a global pandemic, the Minister of Health faces serious allegations of corruption. This past week the SIU froze R22 million in assets belonging to Digital Vibes.

This does not look good for what might be Mkhize’s fate. If the allegations are even partly true, then there has been an egregious breach of trust by Mkhize - to say the very least. The irony, of course, is that he has been one of Ramaphosa’s more capable Cabinet ministers and has at least followed the science during the pandemic. Mostly, the public trusted his handling of the situation.

Now, Kubayi-Ngubane, with no knowledge of medicine or science, needs to lead. Perhaps she is working hard, but really, she is not a credible messenger.

Presumably, the President awaits the SIU report on Digital Vibes and Mkhize’s involvement before he makes a final decision on the position of Health Minister. That is entirely in line with his slowly-slowly institutionalist approach to problem-solving.

Unfortunately, the timing could not be worse for Ramaphosa, Mkhize and the country. An acting Minister of Health is adding to the sense of a state that is overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis.

The President himself is focused on the geo-politics of the pandemic and trying to get the developed world to play its part, whether it is on the issue of vaccine production, IP waivers or making excess vaccines available to the developing world. Global solidarity is therefore key. But, of course, all of these interventions take time to bear fruit.

As South Africa battles the third wave, the balancing act between a full-blown health crisis and an economic crisis is more acute than ever.

Given the near wasted decade of state capture, South Africa has very little room to manoeuvre its way out of further economic setbacks.

The kitty is quite simply bare and continues to be stripped by unscrupulous and corrupt politicians. This past week alone, Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke, reported that “nobody really knows for sure" what happened to R5.5 billion allocated to 22 of South Africa’s worst-run municipalities. She went on to say, “Nobody's reporting, nobody's accounting, and nobody really knows for sure what has happened to this money". In addition, most of the audits for the Free State province could not be completed because there was insufficient information provided by municipalities.

As South Africans protest for proper delivery of basic services, as organisations like Gift of the Givers install water tanks and do the job of government, or ordinary citizens start filling potholes, those elected to serve continue to loot the state. Mostly this is because of the high levels of impunity at virtually every level of public life.

If there are no consequences for corruption, then the status quo persists with an insouciance which is itself criminal.

Is it any wonder then that South Africans are feeling rudderless?

The vaccine roll-out feels like a trickle. We have as usual insisted on the ‘Rolls Royce’ EVDS system which collapsed in the first week. Now, the supply of vaccines is in doubt - some of that is self-inflicted and then there are other factors which are out of our hands.

What is clear is that lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. We need to use every means possible to get as many vaccinated as possible.

Reports of low over-60s registration in some areas has also caused a halting start. Finally now, walk-ins have been formally allowed for those over-60. Many have not registered on the EVDS system because of a lack of internet access (this was surely predictable?) or vaccine hesitancy. For many that SMS is still elusive. In addition, we have heard that registration for over-50s vaccination starts on 1 July. Let’s hope the SMSs don’t prove even more elusive.

As is always the case in South Africa, there are citizens everywhere holding up the crumbling system - doctors, nurses, caregivers; the list is endless. They are those who spend themselves in order to fix what is broken. Quite simply, they keep going despite it all. It is for this reason that public health vaccine centres have been coping well and accounts have been overwhelmingly positive.

However, we remain in a perfect storm of a lack of leadership, our usual planning shortcomings and other mostly self-inflicted wounds.

Exacerbating the situation is poor and irregular communication from the acting Health Minister and then the Presidency. Whether true or not, the perception is that we are doing the usual south African ‘fly by the seat of our pants’ on vaccine roll-outs.

We need a vaccine roll-out plan communicated to the public, with clear numbers, clear messaging and a realistic plan in place regarding vaccine roll-out.

Rattling off numbers of vaccines procured in a haphazard manner will not feed the hunger ordinary citizens have for information on the vaccine roll-out. We might also ask whether there is an effective way to harness a more creative relationship between government and the private sector? At the moment it seems as though the private sector has to follow government’s slow lead when we should be trying by whatever means possible to vaccinate as many people as possible?

South Africans are running out of patience with government. The wheels have come off its pandemic response and we need to retrieve the situation with some smart, strategic thinking. What is in the toolbox to deal with the crisis is limited, but we could start with proper communication regarding vaccine supply and roll-out and an honest rendering of where we are.

A harder lockdown now appears inevitable, but we need to add more strings to our bow in fighting this pandemic. And we need to do so fast as death continues to stalk our cities and towns.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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