On the 2nd of January 2021, South Africa’s Health Minister announced an ambitious vaccine rollout strategy. Vaccination is supposed to occur in three phases: starting with health care workers and ending with people over 18. According to this plan, 67% of the population will be vaccinated by the end of the year – thereby achieving herd immunity.
The goal was to vaccinate one and a half million healthcare workers by the end of Phase One. However, to date, the country is on Phase Two, and only 642, 946 people have been vaccinated. The first phase was a profound disappointment, as only half a million healthcare workers were vaccinated. While there are valid reasons for why the rollout was delayed, e.g., the emergence of a South African variant and the doubts surrounding the J & J vaccine, the vaccine rollout strategy leaves a lot to be desired. South Africa is undoubtedly one of Africa’s wealthiest and most developed countries, but the procurement of vaccines has been a long and complex process, and it has also been affected by the COVID-19 patent divide.
According to data from Media Hack Collective, at the current rate it will take South Africa 15 years, ten months, and eight days to vaccinate 67% of the population. These statistics are disappointing, to say the least. With a looming 3rd wave and the emergence of the Indian variant (which could lead to a rise in hospitalizations), South Africans don’t have that kind of time.
The government has also made some costly mistakes. For example, they quickly sold the initial AstraZeneca doses to the African Union after doubts about the amount of protection it offered arose, and yet other African countries are now using those very same does to further their own vaccination programs. Secondly, and more importantly, the registration process is exclusionary. People aged 60 and under have to register on the government’s portal to receive the vaccine. They can do it online, by SMS, or via WhatsApp. For someone who is as young and tech-savvy as me, the registration only takes a few minutes. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for everyone, especially those over 60 years old. There are also major class implications, since only 9.5% of the population has household internet access and only 2% of rural homesteads are connected to the internet, which makes South Africa’s digital divide rather apparent.
It’s easy for me to use a smartphone because I have grown up around phones, and I live in an urban area where I’m guaranteed mobile connections. I can’t help but worry about older people, such as my grandmother, who still need to be explained the basics. I wonder if they have anyone assisting them or whether they even have access to information about where and when to get vaccinated. I’m worried that modernization has left them behind, and therefore denying them their right to healthcare.
I believe that the trick to improving the rollout speed is to go back to basics and make things simpler. For example, Zimbabwe’s vaccine rollout is successful because people are served on a first-come-first-serve basis, and registration is done onsite. A manual system would look similar to South Africa’s elections, as voter registration is conducted manually and electoral commission officers do day-to-day campaigns. If the right safety protocols are followed, this strategy might also work for the vaccination drive. Having volunteers physically go to remote and underdeveloped areas might make a substantial difference.
Instead of focusing on the disappointing number of registrations thus far, we can look to the future. Modernization makes our lives easier, but it also leaves people behind. Looking to the future can also mean using methods of the past. After all, the most important thing is to save as many lives as possible and win the war against COVID-19.
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