‘It’s about the elections’: Scientists decry Ramaphosa’s Covid-19 gamble
Experts say politics behind decision to allow huge crowds in midst of a pandemic
An early fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, thousands of avoidable deaths and the possibility of spending the festive season under hard lockdown.
These are the grim prospects, experts say, if President Cyril Ramaphosa’s surprise move on Thursday to ease restrictions on the size of gatherings this week backfires, as some fear it will.
With SA emerging from a devastating third wave and still far from achieving vaccination targets, the South African Medical Association (Sama) and academics said Ramaphosa appears to be ignoring scientific advice and putting politics before people’s health.
He is banking on a scaled-up vaccination campaign, which includes administering an additional 16-million doses of vaccine by mid-December, which he said may save 20,000 lives.
But experts doubt the target can be reached and warn that the move to level 1 and the crowds expected at election events will create superspreader events.
The Sunday Times understands that pressure from churches was also a factor in the decision to allow a maximum of 2,000 people at outdoor gatherings and 750 indoors. Charismatic churches with auditoriums for 6,000 people are believed to have asked for permission to fill every other seat.
But Pastor Siphiwe Mathebula from Hope Restoration Ministries in Kempton Park, east of Johannesburg, said religious leaders were not consulted. “They just wanted to do this for themselves,” he said. “This is not about the church, it is about the elections and them wanting to campaign.”
Amid criticism of the size of crowds at campaign events for the November 1 local elections, the president cited falling infection rates for the decision to allow the gatherings.
Sama chair Dr Angelique Coetzee said she agreed with the decision to ease the lockdown to alert level 1. However, “what doesn’t make sense to us is to have outdoor gatherings of 2,000 and indoor of 750. It doesn’t make scientific sense, it makes political sense. I think we are about to see in four weeks after elections what was the impact of this.”
Professor Mosa Moshabela, deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, agreed that the decision to raise limits on the size of gatherings appeared to be political.Vax and wane: since peaking on August 26, the daily number of jabs has declined to around 170,000 on weekdays.
Image: Ruby-Gay Martin
“I know he [Ramaphosa] said a move to level 1 is guided by science, and he is right, but what he did not address is the size of the gatherings guided by science. In my opinion, there is no scientific basis for the relaxation of the number of people allowed at gatherings.”
William Gumede, associate professor in the Wits University school of governance, said it appears politics is trumping economic and health concerns, and he accused Ramaphosa of ignoring the lessons of the Indian elections in April.
“They did not follow protocols, it was a free-for-all and it became a superspreading event,” he said. “If we get another wave, we may after the elections sit with a big health and economic crisis because the government will have to introduce another hard lockdown.”
Ramaphosa admitted during his “family meeting” televised address that bigger gatherings come with risks, particularly in the context of electioneering.
“Campaign activities pose the greatest risk to a surge in new infections,” he said. “Every one of us – from party leaders and organisers to supporters and elections staff – has a responsibility to ensure that the regulations are followed and all health protocols are observed during the election campaign.’
“I know it is difficult to be able to control the number of people who throng around leaders, but we urge all of us to get our followers to adhere to the protocols.”
Speaking in Katlehong, southeast of Johannesburg, on Friday, he rejected accusations of adjusting the regulations to suit elections. “This is not about elections. When I electioneer, I wear my ANC T-shirt, my ANC lumber [jacket], and my language is completely different. We know how to make those divisions,” he said.
The easing of restrictions coincides with the launch of the first “Vooma vaccination weekend” to revive the flagging jab rollout.
An average of 175,000 daily injections were administered between Monday and Friday. This is about 70% of the target Ramaphosa outlined when he said on Thursday: “To reach our goal, we need to administer an additional 16-million vaccine doses this year, which amounts to around 250,000 first-dose vaccinations every single workday of every week until mid-December.”
Since phase 2 of the rollout began on May 18, following the vaccination of nearly 500,000 health workers in phase 1, the 250,000 daily target has been met only 14 times.‘ANC election campaign’ or false hope before a December lockdown? SA reacts to lockdown level 1Here’s what social media had to say about the change in lockdown level.NEWS2 days ago
Achieving the target would mean 70% of adults being vaccinated by the end of the year. “If we reach this target, the department of health estimates we could save up to 20,000 lives . 20,000 people – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – whose deaths can be prevented if the majority of us chooses to get vaccinated,” said Ramaphosa.
But Wits dean of health sciences Shabir Madhi said the rollout is heading into what his fellow vaccinologists refer to as a “valley of death that people fail to appreciate until it is upon them”. He blamed poor planning before the rollout began and said SA is facing “probably a mix of apathy, vaccine hesitancy, anti-vaxxers and [issues with] access”.
Sama’s Coetzee said the vaccination rate is too low and “we are nowhere near herd immunity”. This makes it even harder to understand the go-ahead for larger gatherings, she said. “I need to see the science that says 2,000 people in a rally would be safe.”
Moshabela said on top of low vaccination coverage, “people are also fatigued and complacent, and a combination of all those things creates a problem for us”.
Gumede said he had observed a lack of discipline in terms of social distancing and mask protocols during door-to-door campaigning and at election rallies. “We are at a critical moment where this election may be a superspreader event,” he said.
This is not about elections. When I electioneer, I wear my ANC T-shirt, my ANC lumber [jacket], and my language is completely different. We know how to make those divisions
President Cyril Ramaphosa
Low vaccination uptake and bigger gatherings with poor observation of Covid protocols will also deal SA another economic blow, said Tim Köhler from the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.
“It is clear that low vaccination coverage is a binding constraint to economic recovery. The fewer people vaccinated, the more vulnerable the population is to the disease and the more likely regulations would need to be put in place to restrict social interaction to minimise transmission,” said Köhler.
This, in turn, “limits the extent firms can operate, constraining their ability to retain existing jobs and create new ones”.
Economist Mike Schussler said the economy will rebound if the vaccination rate improves. He noted that the mining and agricultural sectors, which together account for 5.8% of GDP, are making a strong recovery.
The mining sector’s vaccination programme is well ahead of the national average, with 208,000 – or 46% – of its 450,000 employees and contractors already jabbed, said Minerals Council SA head of health Dr Thuthula Balfour.
Balfour said knowing the socioeconomic and demographic features of the population is vital to identify barriers to vaccination. “Before we think there is vaccine hesitancy, we must have eliminated all barriers and educated people adequately and allayed their fears,” she said.
Supported by unions, the mining sector hopes to reach its target of 80% coverage by the end of the month, Balfour said.