South African president: I’m battling challenges on many fronts

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday addressed the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), a journalist organization, updating South Africans on the progress his government has made on recovery and reform plans initiated last November. These remarks came two weeks after the State of the Nation Address in which he prioritized the eradication of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In a region that has been relatively spared from Covid-19 in terms of infections and deaths with just under 4 million confirmed cases and just over 100,000 deaths, South Africa is an outlier. Not only has it reported over a third of total cases in Africa (1.5 million), it also has the highest number of reported deaths at 49, 677 and the highest number of newly reported cases at 1,676; these three metrics put it on par with some of the largest European countries – whose region has many times the number of cases and deaths.

Last November, South African health authorities discovered a new variant in multiple South African regions and later announced this discovery in December. At the time, there was also a report of a new variant circulating in the U.K. As of February 16, the South African variant has been detected in 40 countries, 9 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Because little was known about the new variants’ characteristics – their transmissibility and health impacts – there was and still is concern about vaccine efficacy in protecting against them. Now, the South African variant is known to be more contagious than earlier Covid-19 variants – this may be responsible in part for the recent spike in cases in South Africa. There have also been studies to measure the effectiveness of vaccines on new Covid-19 variants. 

Recent studies have shown the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are less effective against the South African variant, prompting companies to commit to updating vaccines or developing booster shots. Still, the South African “government’s top advisors on Covid-19 backed Pfizer’s vaccine” last week, stating that the “neutralizing activity found in the study was ‘within the tolerable limits of what we can accept’”. 

Vaccine rollout in South Africa has been rocky to start. On February 7, it announced it would suspend inoculations of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after it was found to be ineffective at “preventing mild to moderate illness from the variant dominant in the country” – there may still be a use for this vaccine if it is able to “prevent severe disease”. Prior to this announcement, South Africa had received 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine; it will reportedly be sharing the AstraZeneca vaccine with other African countries and Europe. The WHO last week approved “two versions of the AstraZeneca/ Oxford vaccine for emergency use” globally; AstraZeneca-SKBio (South Korea) and the Serum Institute of India produce these vaccines. 

South Africa has begun vaccinating health workers with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine – it requires just one shot, can be stored at normal vaccine storage temperatures, and has shown a 57 percent efficacy in South African trials. Notably, no country has authorized its use; last week Johnson & Johnson applied for emergency use listing at the WHO, which would allow it to supply vaccines to the COVAX program. South Africa is therefore the first country to administer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and is doing so as part of a research study that will administer the vaccine to half a million people. So far, it has received 80,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine out of a preliminary 500,000 doses. To date, it has vaccinated 52,000 people, mainly health workers; President Ramaphosa was one of the first people in South Africa to be vaccinated and  received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

Regarding the South African vaccine supply, it is expecting 12 million doses from COVAX. On Tuesday February 24, Ghana became the first country outside of India to receive an AstraZeneca vaccine shipment from the COVAX facility located in Pune, India. South Africa will reportedly receive COVAX vaccines beginning in April. According to South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, the country will receive an initial 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine with 7 million expected by June. The African Union, previously chaired by President Ramaphosa and now by President Félix Tshisekedi of the DRC, last week had expected to start distributing 1 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to 20 African countries by the end of this week. 

With vaccine distribution sputtering to a start in South Africa and other African countries, COVAX beginning its distribution and Johnson & Johnson’s being reviewed for emergency use and authorization, President Ramaphosa has sought to reassure 60 million South Africans that signs of vaccine progress augur promise for a battered economy and a  state bereft of resources. They are not the only ones that need convincing. While the world watches its Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout, African countries in particular  may also be watching for signs of African success at curbing the pandemic. 

South Africa then has become a harbinger not just for African and other countries left out of the initial dash to secure vaccines, but also for the rest of the world. Whatever aspirations the world has for South Africa, it may lack the structural capacity to service these expectations. To start, critics are questioning the government’s ability to vaccinate 40 million, or two-thirds, of its population by the end of 2021. It has announced plans to vaccinate 1.1 million people by the end of March. As President Ramaphosa referenced in his remarks, it must also contend with vaccine disinformation. 

Last November, as South African health officials were working tirelessly to study what was eventually found to be a new variant of Covid-19, President Ramaphosa introduced Operation Vulindlela, a, “joint initiative of the National Treasury and President’s office to unlock economic growth and transformation ”  – mainly to accelerate economic reforms – and his South African Reconstruction and Recovery Plan

Even before the pandemic, South Africa’s economy had been slowing down after recovering somewhat from a steep decline in 2009; its GDP had decreased from 2018 to 2019. After a 7.5 percent contraction in GDP, the economy is expected to grow 2.8 percent in 2021, though growth is not expected to continue to increase. According to the South African Department of Statistics, the unemployment rate in the 4th quarter 2020 reached its highest point since records began in 2008, but it also said more people are now participating in the labor force. 

President Ramaphosa and other members of the government see infrastructure investment in key sectors, including energy, water, telecommunications, and transport as the key to making South Africa more attractive to business development and investment. The President’s plans also seek to stimulate job growth and increase government revenues, especially since it plans to continue to “support struggling companies and households”. While the government has taken measures throughout the pandemic period to cushion losses in household and business income, it also plans to more closely monitor public spending, particularly from its sovereign wealth fund. 

Finally, in order to enact his economic plans, the President has sought administrative reforms, which aim to “professionalize the public service, ” reduce “political interference in administration,” and strengthen law enforcement agencies. He did not offer any details as to what his government has done in terms of addressing these broad objectives, only that “a series of consultations are currently underway” and that “the fight against corruption is gaining momentum”. If investments and reforms are scrutinized to the same extent as the vaccine program, there may be grounds for hope after all. 

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