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South Africa: Are inequality and incompetence hindering vaccine roll-out?

An excruciatingly slow roll-out of the anti-Covid vaccination campaign in South Africa, together with deep-rooted inequality issues and a strained healthcare system, risk hampering the government's stated intention to defeat the pandemic amid the third wave of infections.

By Linda Bordoni

With over 1,700,000  infections and almost 58,000 Covid-related deaths, South Africa is entering a third wave of the pandemic amid concern that the vaccine roll-out is proceeding much too slowly and may be hampered by deep-rooted issues of injustice and inequality.

Father Russell Pollitt, Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa, points out that incompetence and lack of efficiency at the government level, coupled with the fact that millions of rural poor risk being excluded from the vaccination campaign because they are not technologically savvy, risk undermining the country’s proclaimed intent to defeat the pandemic.

Speaking with Linda Bordoni, Pollitt says that so far, only about 0.8% of the South African population has been fully vaccinated, while there are a number of people who are now waiting for the second dose amid uncertainty and lack of information that cast deep shadows on the near future.

Listen to the interview with Fr. Russell Pollitt, SJ

Pollitt explained that the actual vaccine roll-out is excruciatingly slow, that no one knows what will happen to the stock of single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines the country had bought but is storing after a safety scare, and that theoretically everyone over the age of 60 is eligible to be inoculated, although authorities are still deciding which categories will be the first to get the jab.

Hospitals and clinics under huge pressure

The healthcare system, Pollitt said, is not coping. He noted that Johannesburg’s biggest hospital recently had a fire and remains closed “just as we move into the third wave of the pandemic.”

“Private hospitals are full, and that hospital had a capacity to care for many people,” and when the local government was asked when it will be reopened, he said, incompetency was again highlighted as it appeared that “plans have been lost and no questions are being answered.”

The bottom line is that “the health system is going to take a lot of strain in the next coming weeks as cold weather hits and the rate of infections rises.”

The poor and the elderly risk exclusion from vaccination campaign

Pollitt agrees that a system that requires the capacity of the individual to book a vaccine online and receive a digital communication regarding an appointment to be inoculated, risks excluding many rural poor and elderly people who, he noted, may not have access to technology and may not even know about the campaign.

“The idea was that satellite clinics would be set up all over the country and that people would be made aware and vaccinated in satellite clinics. But given the fact that the rollout has been so slow in urban areas, I am of the opinion that much of this is simply 'talk' and that the government has not got very far with reaching the people in far-out areas.”

Number of deaths and infections

It appears, Pollitt said, that with over 5.600 new cases reported per day over the last couple of days, the numbers of infections reported by the government appear to be in line with reality, while the number of Covid-related deaths could be much higher than the official tally. 

 

“From conversations I have with undertakers, they have told me they are extremely busy and that they are working around the clock. One undertaker told me that the numbers of deaths from Covid is much higher than what we are being told but it is very hard to verify that.”

Curfews and restrictions

Pollitt explained that notwithstanding the third wave the government has decided not to enforce the same strict lockdown of 2020 because the economic fallout has been devastating and unemployment has left millions in extreme poverty.

Lockdown, he said, has been moved to level-2, which means there is a curfew in place, restaurants close early, mask-wearing is mandatory in public. Church gatherings, he revealed, are not allowed to include more than 100 people inside the building or 250 outside with the necessary spacing.

Generally, in line with other countries across the globe, there is a “covid fatigue” with people feeling frustrated as well as there being a significant rise in mental health problems and isolation issues for the elderly and the sick.

“For the most part people are trying their best to navigate their way through the pandemic and stay safe,” he said, but in many fields, including in ministry and outreach, things will never be the same.

Adapting to the times at the Jesuit Institute

Pollitt concluded by reflecting on how the Jesuit Institute South Africa, which he directs, has been forced to find new ways to continue its work “partly because a lot of the work we do is training and giving retreats and meeting people at gatherings.”

A prime example, he said, is the Institute’s “Winter Living Theology Programme” which was offered all over the country with three days of teaching on a specific topic: it has been halted and moved to an online version, as have several online retreats and training courses, including a two-year Spiritual Directors training course, that has become an online course.

It's been quite hard for a number of the staff, he said, because “by nature, we have always been able to meet people” and added to that are the effects of the financial difficulties due to a decreased income.

“We are very much focused on the fact that the Church of the future, and certainly the work of a place like the Jesuit Institute is going to be a hybrid, that we are never going to go back to the way that was. We are entering into  a new way of being, and so more and more we are thinking of how we can make the work we are doing a hybrid, where there will be some in-person stuff where we can, but a lot of stuff will also be online.”

10 June 2021, 19:44