When the AstraZeneca vaccine was delivered at the end of January 2021, South Africa distinguished itself as one of the first African countries to roll out an immunisation programme against Covid-19.
But a month later, acquiring the vaccines proved to be a botched deal. Its efficacy was said to be low against emerging Covid-19 variants, so the country decided to offload its jabs to other African Union countries.
By April, South Africa had to suspend the rolling out of Johnson & Johnson vaccines following some blood clot concerns. Additionally, some of those vaccines were destroyed after contamination in what became a huge setback in the country’s immunisation schedule.
Despite hitting the ground running early, South Africa is far from achieving herd immunity, a target that was initially set to be achieved by September 2021.
The target to vaccinate 67 per cent of the population was then shifted to the end of the year before being readjusted to February 2022.
But only 7.2 million people have been vaccinated so far, according to ministry of health data, a figure that falls short of the intended 40 million. It represents just 12 per cent achievement in immunising the population.
That has put pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government with regard to its handling of the vaccine rollout.
On the other hand, South Africa’s more than 400 public and over 200 private hospitals remain overwhelmed as the country battles to emerge from the third wave of infections.
After surviving an ordeal against the virus, Kensani Phiri, a 30-year-old mother of three in Benoni, is worried that others might not be as lucky as she was.
She says she avoided admission to hospital as she feels health institutions have become death traps.
“The general feeling is that if you get admitted to hospital for Covid-19 you are never going to make it out alive. We depend on public hospitals as private healthcare is quite expensive for the lower and middle classes. I survived Covid-19 because I treated myself at home,” Phiri said.
“Hospitals have become crowded since the pandemic started, making it impossible for nurses to make every individual a top priority. Some nurses are extremely rude. They lack sympathy and compassion and I didn’t want to experience such treatment whilst fighting for my life.”
The need for hospitalisation has exposed the slow vaccination programme after President Ramaphosa had insisted on taking off the pressure from health institutions by getting people vaccinated.
Ramaphosa under fire
He has come under fire, especially from opposition political parties, for the way his administration is dealing with vaccinating the population.
“This is how they run this country. They prioritise eating over the health of the people,” Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema said recently while criticising the government on its vaccination programme.
The firebrand politician predicts that South Africa will endure “a fourth, fifth, tenth and even thirtieth wave if we sit and do nothing about this vaccine issue”.
“These people will keep on locking us down, and lockdown is not a solution. The solution is to vaccinate the majority of South Africans…Russia says ‘if you approve Sputnik in South Africa, we will give you 15 million doses’. China says ‘if you approve Sinovac, we will give you 15 million’. So, we could have 30 million doses and vaccinate a lot of our people,” he said.
It was only recently that China-made Sinovac was approved for use in South Africa.
For a country that has the Johnson & Johnson vaccine manufactured locally, even health workers are worried about the number of people being admitted to hospital.
A matron at Charlotte Maxeke Hospital in Johannesburg suggests that a false narrative was sold that South Africa was ahead of itself in handling the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is currently no treatment against the virus itself or for the body’s harmful reaction to the virus. Hospitals aren’t primarily the reason people lose their lives. There are a lot of aspects. Some people unfortunately have weakened immune systems and aren’t responsive to medication,” the matron said.
“Right now South Africa is sitting on over 80,000 Covid-19 deaths. Our mandate is to try to save people’s lives as doctors and nurses. We wouldn’t just watch our people lose their lives and do absolutely nothing about it.”
Joel Ravele says he had to take his parents to his home province of Limpopo after struggling to secure hospital beds for them in Gauteng as the country was battling the third wave.
“I actually took my parents in at Zebediela after they tested positive for Covid-19 and it took almost seven hours to get a bed. It’s frustrating especially for someone struggling to breathe,” he said.
Huge efforts have been made to improve the quality of healthcare in South Africa but several issues — such as prolonged waiting time, poor hygiene, poor record keeping, a shortage of resources in medicine and equipment — have been raised by the public regarding healthcare institutions.
Mpho Baloyi, 26, a Covid-19 survivor who was once admitted to Sebokeng Hospital in the Vaal Triangle, also paints a picture of a dire situation.
He complains about the treatment he received in hospital.
“I am an unemployed graduate and no one in my family works. Our family depends on the Social Development Grant that my parents receive monthly,” he said.
“If I had money to buy nebulisers, oxygen concentrators and all these concoctions and medications people use, I would have. There’s really nothing they can give you at the hospital other than painkillers and vitamins and put you on an oxygen machine to help you with your breathing.”
When he started breathing on his own, he said, he asked to be discharged, because he was traumatised to see other people die.
The government is also being criticised for directing that only those aged 35 and above are eligible for vaccination currently.