South Africa is ramping up its vaccination drive as the omicron variant threatens to derail a stuttering recovery from the coronavirus crisis, while companies are taking a harder line against those who don’t get shots.
The daily number of Covid-19 infections in the country has jumped five-fold over of the past week following the onset of the new strain, with the rolling seven-day average of cases exceeding 10 000. Despite having a sufficient number of vaccines, hesitancy and apathy remain widespread and only a quarter of the population has been fully inoculated. That compares with 59% in the US and 69% in the UK.
“As every day passes and as infections rise, the reasons to get vaccinated become more compelling and the need becomes ever-more urgent,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his weekly newsletter on Monday. “Vaccination is essential for our economic recovery.”
The comments mark a shift from previous virus waves, when the government responded with stop-start lockdowns that caused gross domestic product to shrink the most in more than a quarter-century last year. State coffers are now too depleted to counter the effect of lost production and the jobless rate stands at a record 35%, even before the likely impact of omicron on the tourism industry.
Having already offered lottery tickets and doubling cash grants for the elderly to encourage people to take vaccines, the state is planning to make inoculations mandatory. Details are being finalised within the National Economic Development and Labour Council, a bargaining forum.
Business groups and labour unions want unvaccinated people to be restricted from a list of yet-to-be-determined venues, with the focus on the hospitality industry and sporting events, according to Lisa Seftel, Nedlac’s executive director. Supermarkets will likely be excluded, she said.
“The view of business and organised labour at the moment is that they are very concerned what another lockdown will mean,” Seftel said. “Companies will just close and because of the government’s fiscal constraints there will be no relief that can be offered to intervene.”
Martin Kingston, chairman of Business for South Africa’s coronavirus steering committee, said proposals had been made to bar those who hadn’t been inoculated from “all but essential services.”
“There is a head of steam that has been built up,” he said. “There is a high level of alignment at Nedlac.”
Several firms including Discovery, the owner of South Africa’s largest medical-insurance administrator, private school operator Curro Holdings and insurers Old Mutual Plc and Sanlam have already announced that they will compel their staff to get the shots.
MTN Group, Africa’s largest wireless carrier, went a step further on Monday, saying it’s prepared to fire employees who don’t comply with its mandatory vaccine policy unless they qualify for exemption.
Compelling vaccinations is likely to be challenged in court. The National Employers’ Association of South Africa and other groups said in a letter to Ramaphosa they opposed the plan and hadn’t been adequately consulted about it.
Business should be doing more to promote vaccinations, even if they don’t make them compulsory for employees, said Busi Mavuso, the chief executive officer of lobby group Business Leadership South Africa.
“Many are hesitant, not because of some deep ideological conviction but because they do not have the information to feel able to make an informed choice,” she said. “We are still losing jobs despite most of the lockdown conditions having been lifted, with 660 000 fewer jobs in the third quarter than we had a year ago.”