Workers load South Africa's first COVID-19 vaccine doses as they arrive at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg Workers load South Africa's first COVID-19 vaccine doses as they arrive at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg 

South Africa: Xenophobia and corruption threaten fair and effective distribution of covid vaccine

As South Africa begins to roll-out its anti-covid vaccination campaign, the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Jesuit Institute South Africa are raising some serious concerns regarding who and how people will receive the vaccine.

By Linda Bordoni

With almost 1.5 million reported covid cases and over 46,000 deaths in South Africa, the Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, has illustrated plans for vaccine distribution and a phased rollout of the inoculation process beginning with the most vulnerable groups of the population. 

However, as noted by The Jesuit Institute South Africa and by Jesuit Refugee Service, after having said the nation’s objective is to achieve herd immunity, Dr Mkhize announced the vaccines will be limited to South African citizens only.  

As Fr Russell Pollitt SJ, Director of The Jesuit Insitute South Africa told Vatican News, millions of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are integrated in South Africa’s communities. He noted they are amongst the most vulnerable members of society and must be guaranteed the right to access basic healthcare. He also pointed out that excluding any person from vaccination implies the virus will continue to spread, inevitably eroding the aim and purpose of herd immunity.

Listen to the full interview with Fr Russell Pollitt SJ

Pollitt said that at the moment there is a lot of uncertainty about who is going to get the vaccine and who is not, with frontline workers identified as the first recipients. 

“The one thing we know is that the Health Minister came out saying that migrants and refugees - non-South African citizens - would be excluded from the vaccination campaign,” he said.

In a nation where there are up to 3 million (official) asylum seekers, and Pollitt notes numbers are probably much higher, such a decision would have very serious consequences: “if we are talking about herd immunity and about people who are most vulnerable to covid, one would have thought that the government would have said these are the people whom we need to ensure get this vaccine.”

Political football

“Unfortunately, political games that are being played mean that vulnerable people will be excluded,” he said.

Pollitt also pointed out that South Africa is going to have a local government election this year, “so one cannot but wonder whether it is part of the election to use the vaccine as a political football.”

But apart from political games, he highlighted how voting rights (citizenship) should never determine a person's access to other fundamental basic rights, including healthcare treatment.

“And the problem is, as well, if we are going to deal effectively with covid, and they want to talk about herd immunity, the more people we can vaccinate the better it is going to be: it’s going to be a waste of the country's money to vaccinate only select groups in the population if this is not going to stamp out the virus,” he said.

Pollitt explained that South Africa is in “very bad financial shape” with the government looking to the private sector and even to overseas donors to raise the funds to buy the vaccine. 

“It will be even more catastrophic if the country did acquire the vaccine, borrows the money and has to pay it back, but it's not effective because those who need it are not receiving it,” he said.

Explaining that in South Africa, migrants and asylum seekers are very much integrated into society and communities and that they contribute to local economies, he agreed that excluding them from the vaccination campaign would constitute an abuse with far-reaching implications.

In a city like Johannesburg, he said, which is in good part inhabited by migrants who have come from the entire African continent, “there are probably 30, 40 nations represented in the Johannesburg City bowl alone.” South Africa, Pollitt explained, has been receiving migrants for many years.

However, he continued, “despite the fact that they are contributing to the local economy, with many of them running businesses, seeking to use their professional services for the country, (…) we see the horrible rise in xenophobia that always seems to be lurking under the surface of South African Society.”

Deep-rooted Xenophobia

One cannot but wonder, Pollitt continued, “whether this statement about the vaccines by the Health Minister is just another sign of this kind of xenophobia which, even though the government denies it, is always in the DNA of this country, is always lurking beneath the surface.”

The United Nations, human rights organizations, Christian voices and the voice of Pope Francis himself, have repeatedly warned against “vaccine nationalisms” and called for a fair distribution of the covid-19 vaccine for the benefit of the whole of humanity. Pollitt notes that in South Africa this issue has indeed been raised.

“For example, people in the Church are raising the issue and saying it is important to make sure that there is equitable sharing of the vaccine, but in the world of politics, despite what the World Health Organization or Pope Francis or anybody else says, in the world of politics and in a system where corruption is endemic, these voices are acknowledged and even quoted... but they certainly won’t act on what they hear,” he said.

The public arena, he said, is rife with politicians making statements and saying things like “no one is safe until everybody is safe” but that does not mean they will act on it.

'Welcome, protect, promote, integrate' migrants and refugees

Noting that many of the migrants and refugees who currently live in South Africa have been there for ten, twenty, thirty years, “contributing” to the economy and to development, Pollitt reiterated there should be no query regarding their right to receive the vaccine.  What's more refugees and asylum seekers are legally under the protection of the government and should have the right to access basic healthcare. 

“This doesn’t seem to translate into reality with the leadership we have,” he said, “There is a tone-deafness to these calls from organizations like the WHO or the Holy Father himself because corruption is endemic now in South Africa and in South African politics.”

Fleeing poverty and violence in Zimbabwe and Mozambique

It is a complex and multi-faceted scenario: South Africa is in bad shape financially, but it is one of the most developed nations on the African continent, and most of the migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the country are fleeing poverty and conflict in their nations. 

“If you look to the north of our borders,” Pollitt noted, “we have Zimbabwe. There is not much in the news about Zimbabwe at the moment, but I am told by Jesuits there that the situation is dire: the covid numbers are not being reported accurately, people are dying, there are no healthcare facilities, people are starving, the ability of the country to produce food to support its population has fallen apart, there is no electricity for large parts of the day, people are suffering,” he said.

Many of the people coming into the country currently, he said, are from Zimbabwe and from northern Mozambique, where they are fleeing tensions and violence

“They come here for a better life, and South Africa does provide something better than what they are receiving at the moment, “he concluded, “but from a human rights perspective, and a Christian perspective: what they are receiving in South Africa does not live up to what we should be giving to a human person to make sure we uphold their dignity.”

08 February 2021, 10:30