Low Covid vaccination rates coming back to haunt SA

When the 5th wave takes hold SA will need a light touch approach that protects people’s health with minimal disruption to business activities, says BLSA CEO.
Image: Bloomberg

It’s a shame that just more than two years after we were hit by Covid-19, only half the adult population is fully vaccinated. That is coming back to haunt us now as the fifth wave gathers momentum.

The challenge for business is how to cope with the wider social management of the fifth wave while we still focus on rebuilding after two years of Covid-related restrictions. Should business attempt to drive up vaccination rates through vaccine mandates for staff and other measures? Or, given that most businesses have high vaccination rates anyway, should business resist further Covid measures? These are not easy questions to answer. We must find the line to walk between ensuring the sustainability and safety of our workplaces and appropriate concern for society at large.

The damage of Covid has been severe: 100 195 people have died and 3 776 298 people infected. Only 19.6 million people, almost exactly half of the adult population, are fully vaccinated today. But compare this to countries like Brazil (77% of the entire population), Bangladesh (71%) and Vietnam (80%), and it is clear we cannot blame our failure to vaccinate on a lack of resources. The good news is that more vulnerable populations are better protected – 70% of those over 60 are fully vaccinated. But achieving herd immunity now seems out of reach and we’ll have to learn to cope with each new wave of infections. This fifth wave is the first in which we’re not being governed by a state of disaster.

Government has gazetted legislation to enable it to impose many of the Covid-19 restrictions automatically and indefinitely, without need of a ministerial decree or a state of disaster. This extends to many other conditions, not just Covid-19. Such powers can of course be abused – we intend to be vigilant in ensuring they are used appropriately.

Regulation has clearly gone wrong in the past. Remember the initial ban on the sale of tobacco products, which now we know was completely ineffective in combating the spread of the disease but allowed the illicit tobacco industry to flourish and R5.8 billion in tax revenue was lost to the fiscus.

When the fifth wave does gain momentum, we need a light touch approach that protects people’s health with minimal disruption to business activities.

Businesses are having to adapt and many are sharpening up their policies on employee vaccinations. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, ruled in favour of employers when employees objected to being vaccinated in numerous cases. The legal processes have established that employees must be vaccinated or need a recent test to prove they are not infected. These tests would need to be produced every two weeks. However, employers also have the right to dismiss employees who refuse to be vaccinated.

The responsibility of employers is clear: they have to protect the health and safety of their employees.

Government is gradually moving in the same direction. Large scale gatherings, likes stadium sports events, can be held up to 50% of capacity provided attendees produce a vaccine certificate or a negative PCR test result on admittance. Otherwise, gatherings cannot be of more than 1,000 indoors and 2,000 outdoors, with full social distancing and masking. I would like to see this principle extended – as we now see in many places in the world, all activities, including places of work, should be able to operate normally providing those present can produce a vaccine certificate or negative test.

As we adapt as a society to living with the virus, it’s important not to give up on vaccinations – it is still the best way to combat this virus. The evidence is clear that it reduces (though does not eliminate) the likelihood of being infected as well as infecting others. It dramatically reduces the severity of the illness, easing pressure on our health care systems.

Trying to accelerate vaccinations has proven difficult largely because of the numerous misconceptions, many of them beyond the absurd, that flourish on social media. It terrifies me that South Africans are so quick to believe some of the nonsense that’s out there.
We need targeted messaging, tailored to suit different segments of the population, that directly dispels the myths and educates people about the science.

The Department of Health’s 25 April Covid-19 and Vaccine Social Listening Report lists some of these myths among other reasons for vaccination reluctance. One factor it identifies is the misconception that “Covid is over” and is not a major concern. That is probably one of the more dangerous misconceptions.

According to the World Health Organisation: “We’re still in the middle of the pandemic. The virus has not settled down into any seasonal pattern or transmission pattern. It is still capable of causing huge epidemics.”

We need to remain vigilant while increasing our vaccination rate but all the while ensuring that disruption to economic activity is kept at the minimal necessary levels. In 2020, the year of that first, draconian lockdown, our economy shrank 7%. We haven’t recovered, with our unemployment rate climbing steadily since then to 35.3%, with youth unemployment at 66.5%.

From here, the aim must be to ensure the maximum amount of possible economic activity can continue unrestricted.

While the floods have been a severe setback to Durban port’s operations, difficulties at the harbour have been evident for some time, I wrote in fin24. SA’s ports are rated among the poorest performers globally and the long delays and poor services cause many shipping lines to bypass our shores. The use of public-private partnerships will be crucial in upgrading the country’s ports.

The Green Drop report, which rates the treatment of polluted water after passing through municipal and private treatment facilities, officially classifies more than 60% of SA’s sewage and wastewater treatment works as being in a “poor to critical” state, I wrote in Business Day. The Daily Maverick reports that 65 water & sanitation department officials have been implicated in corruption. Prosecutions must follow swiftly – putting the health of citizens at risk and jeopardising the security of SA’s clean water supply is a serious crime.

Busi Mavuso is CEO of Business Leadership South Africa.

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