HOLDING the government to account is key to any democracy. But when those able to do this denounce the government whatever it does, this will make government worse, not better.
South Africa’s public debate is the weirdest in the world. Although the governing party is still 37 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival, in the national debate, dominated by the middle class and affluent, saying anything good about the government will label you as a fool or a stooge. The debate yells at the government whatever it does; while at times this forces a government which often needs to be yelled at to serve the people better, the fact that it can do no right can also ensure that it will fail.
The Great Vaccine Commotion
A very topical example is the current commotion about its claimed failure to buy vaccines. It delayed this not despite the fact that the debate always yells at it but because it does.
The claim that it bungled vaccine buying is now ‘common sense’ here and abroad. Because international news media get their cue on what to think about this country from their local colleagues, they repeat whatever the echo chamber here says. One international channel works into every current report on this country a claim that it is ‘mismanaging’ vaccine purchases – a columnist in a British newspaper known for his sympathy with Africa and Asia, referred to ‘South African government incompetence’ on vaccines as if it was a fact known to all.
This ‘truth’ was put into the world by medical scientists and the official opposition, at roughly the same time. It was seized upon by media who believe that reality is that which appears in a media release or on digital media and who share the prejudices of the accusers.
Since Covid-19 arrived here, the country’s medical scientists – or at least those who have become media celebrities – have assumed that ‘curative’ medicine is the only way to deal with it. This medicine, in which rich countries lead the world, stresses using technology to cure people who are ill rather than preventing illness. Because our medical scientists embrace it, they insisted that the virus could not be stopped, as it has been in more than a few countries, but could only be held at bay to ready the health system. For the same reason, they ignored or attacked most restrictions designed to stem the virus and did not seem much worried when the government failed to stem cases and deaths by testing and tracing people exposed to Covid-19 (a couple did complain but not very loudly and only when it was too late). So, it is no surprise that they see vaccines, a medical technology, as the ‘only’ way to fight Covid-19.
The official opposition’s current leadership, the voice of the suburbs, sees any interference with business or the activities of the middle-class as a human rights abuse and so has spent much of the pandemic campaigning against any restriction, however essential, which causes suburban inconvenience. Ignoring evidence which shows that economies only recover from Covid-19 if the virus is reduced to a minor problem, its only concern is to press for opening up as much as possible as soon as possible. It seized on vaccines as a quick technical fix which could allow business and the suburbs to return to ‘normal’ immediately.
As medical scientist in other parts of the world point out repeatedly, Covid-19 will not be beaten by vaccines alone. Science knows that they offer protection but not yet how much protection, so getting the vaccine is not a magic bullet to ending the virus’s damage. Even if rich countries reach their vaccination targets, it will be a while before all their citizens are protected and much longer before those in poor countries are, and so the virus will not disappear. But vaccines do help, and the sooner all of us can be vaccinated, the better. So why shouldn’t the debate denounce the government for delaying? The answer is to look at what would have happened if it had done what its denouncers want it to do.
All Paths Lead to Blame
It could have followed the lead of the rich countries and bought up huge stocks of vaccines in advance.
But, even if it could afford to do that, which is a huge ‘if’, there was no guarantee then that a vaccine would be found. Imagine the howls of anger if the medical breakthrough had not happened and the government had set aside huge amounts of cash to buy something which did not exist. It could also have tried to pressure the companies into setting aside vaccines for us. One side of the debate would have accused it using pressure tactics which frighten away foreign investment, the other of caring more about high-tech medicine than poor people.
A prime example of denouncing the government for not doing what it would have been attacked for doing was a column by the former editor of a financial newspaper headlined, in part ‘Hello, useless ANC’. He reported speaking to an executive at the Moderna pharmaceutical company who said it could supply the country 40 million doses by the middle of the year. When he wrote this, the government was being blamed for not making vaccines available immediately. If it had placed the order he recommended, it would have been pilloried – by him as well as others – for making the country wait five months for what should be available now. Oddly for a financial journalist, he does not say how much the doses cost. The price might have been high enough to allow him and the rest of the chorus to loudly denounce the government for spending too much on vaccines.
It could also have used its BRICS connections to line up the Russian or Chinese vaccines. But neither had published the results of clinical trials – the Russians only did this very recently. SAHPRA, the country’s health products regulator, would not have licensed them for use here because it insists, as it should, on seeing full reports of clinical trials before allowing a medication to be used. Either the government would have needed to bully SAHPRA to license them, or it would have been unable to use them. Angry scientists and politicians would have been insulting it on the evening news if it had bullied SAHPRA. It would also have been blamed if these viruses did not offer protection, as many Western scientists expected last year. Right now, we still do not know whether either is effective against the variant of the virus circulating here. If they are not, the reaction to it buying vaccines which did not work would have been very loud and angry.
None of this is hypothetical. Pressed by the loudness of the lobbies, the government bought 1,5 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine despite the fact that scientists here had identified a new variant of the virus last November which might be resistant to the vaccine. If it had waited to find out about its effectiveness – which is now in doubt – it would have been blamed. (The arrival of this vaccine also prompted hysteria about the fact that the expiry date was April despite the fact that the vaccine was meant to be used by then). The government is now being blamed for doing what the debate wanted it to do.
From the outset, the claim that the government had given low priority to vaccines did not sound right. While it and most of the scientists bicker, they agree that technical solutions are better than public health measures. So, it too would surely have seen vaccines as a better option than making testing and tracing work. Given that, it seems likely that it delayed because it worried about the abuse which would follow if it bought vaccines which were never developed or were ineffective. Last week, after the trials raising questions about the Astra Zeneca vaccine were announced, a celebrity scientist blamed the government for not ‘taking risks’ by buying up other vaccines, so it did not need to rely on only one. Besides the small detail that it had already done that after the debate yelled at it, a government which is always blamed will not take any risks, because it knows that, if they do not work out, those urging it to take them will lead the attack on it. The reason it did not rush to buy vaccines is not incompetence but fear of a debate which it knew would blame it if anything at all went wrong.
It is often claimed, with good reason, that the Department of Health is poor at communicating. But there is no incentive for it to explain itself when it knows that whatever it does or says will prompt new attacks. The blame for the wait for vaccines should lie less with the government than with a debate hard-wired to yell at it whatever it does.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor at the faculty of humanity, politics department at the University of Johannesburg and writes in his personal capacity