Mistakes are costly, but repeating them costs even more, which is why SA is losing the fight against Covid-19. The virus’s second wave has caused alarm in this country’s debate, probably because the people who decide what we should worry about are more affected this time. Their concern seems to undo the mistake of the last few months — pretending that Covid-19 was not an urgent problem here even though case numbers were higher than those that now prompt countries in Africa and East Asia to lock down. But the mistake continues, in a different form.
Vaccines are now just about the only solution that interests people who want action on the virus. In a sense, this is progress: we do need to vaccinate as many people as possible as soon as possible. The claim that the government has messed up on vaccines is not nearly as clear-cut as we are told. But governments often act only when pressured, so people yelling at it to get vaccines and roll them out can only help. The problem is that many who are pressing the government over vaccines seem to believe that if we get them we won’t need strong measures to control the virus. The most obvious example is the official opposition, which touts vaccines as an alternative to restrictions.
This is absurd. Even countries rich enough to order just about every vaccine on the planet don’t have nearly enough yet for 70% of their people (the proportion that may be needed to get rid of Covid-19). Humanity has never vaccinated most people in a few months: the SA government’s target of two-thirds of the adult population in 2021 is long on ambition but short on reality. It is also not clear how effective the vaccines will be against the new strain of the virus circulating here. Scientists say it will give meaningful immunity but they accept that this does not mean all of us will be immune if we get the vaccine. So, while anyone lucky enough to be offered one should grab it, vaccines will not end Covid-19 any time soon.
And so, if we want to curb illness and death, we need what we have not had since Covid-19 arrived here: an effective strategy to control it. One reason is that the government and most of our scientists, while bickering about other issues, agree that we were not trying to make Covid-19 go away, only trying to curb it enough to ease pressure on the health system.
This is very similar thinking to the emphasis on vaccines: the answer to Covid-19 is medical technology, even though there is no cure for the disease and we don’t know how much hospitals actually help. Because this view means we need to do less to fight the virus, it is also popular among lobbies, which see restrictions aimed at fighting it as a drag on the economy despite evidence that the only way to economic health is to beat Covid-19.
We now see the results of this flawed thinking. Because Covid-19 has never been controlled, it is back with a vengeance. It also did what viruses always do when they roam free — it mutated, and so we have a strain that multiplies cases and deaths. The health system that was meant to protect us against it cannot cope. Yes, we need vaccines, but they are not all we need. It is not too late to follow the path of countries that have few cases and deaths — restrictions to get case numbers down, followed by testing and tracing that make sure they stay down as controls are eased. Unless pressure on the government to roll out vaccines is accompanied by at least as much pressure to control the spread of the virus, the pain will continue and grow.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor with the humanities faculty of the University of Johannesburg.
*The article was first published on Business Day on the 12th of Jan 2021.