We need to be absolutely focused on achieving a vaccination rate of 70% to 80% of adults. Countries with that level of vaccinations have seen hospitalisation and death rates drop dramatically, even as infections continue in waves. That is what we need confidence to return so that lockdowns are behind us and businesses can focus on rebuilding the economy. The urgency for us to do so was reinforced by the dreadful unemployment figures of last week.
I applaud the Department of Health (DoH) for administering an average of 240 000 vaccine jabs last week, a rate higher than countries such as Israel and the United Kingdom that have achieved high levels of penetration [although the former is now issuing booster shots]. There, businesses are open and life has pretty much returned to normal. The DoH’s progress is a confidence boost for us in that that we are [hopefully] making progress towards that outcome ourselves.
The high figures last week were driven by opening vaccinations to everyone over 18. That will have caused a spike and we need to do everything we can to maintain the vaccination rate. There are two key measures needed to do so: improving access and incentivising people to be vaccinated.
Access is going to become increasingly difficult as the programme continues – South Africa has many hard-to-reach areas. The DoH is already using mobile vaccination units and these are going to become increasingly important to ensure comprehensive access.
The issue of incentives of course is controversial. Unlike other countries, South Africa does not make any vaccines compulsory, including obvious life-saving vaccines such as measles in children. Globally things are quite different. France, for example, forbids children without measles vaccines from attending public schools. Those who travel in Africa know that yellow fever vaccine certificates are necessary to access many countries. The Covid vaccine is already being treated like a passport – it is now difficult to travel internationally without being vaccinated. But it is going beyond travel – evidence of vaccination is now a requirement to access restaurants or large-scale public events from New York to Greece.
Any such measures would require that our vaccination programme provides reliable proof of vaccination for those who have received their jabs. A simple verification technique, preferably in line with global digital standards that have now been established, is key.
This is a matter of giving people access to their own health data and should be straightforward policy-wise.
It is important that the government facilitate this.
Public policy can drive some level of vaccine incentives, but the private sector can do so too. Many employers have led the charge in supporting employees to access vaccines. Some employers can make vaccination mandatory where their employees are exposed to the public (like restaurants) or work in close contact with each other. Businesses also have the right to control access – just as they can insist employees who are exposed to the public are vaccinated, they can insist that customers who are exposed to their employees or each other are vaccinated. As the vaccine programme continues, I expect to see businesses becoming more strident in requiring vaccination both from their customers and employees.
There will of course be lots of ideological contestation about such measures.
Those who refuse to be vaccinated may well proclaim that is their right, but it is also the right of the rest of us to protect ourselves from the risks posed by unvaccinated people, and to do whatever we can to reach the overall vaccination rates necessary for life to go back to normal.
Moving beyond all lockdown restrictions is one critical component to the wider effort to drive an economic recovery, one that is going to start to turn around the unemployment trend, reignite economic growth and start to heal the damaged financial position of the state. There are other important components, such as the structural reforms that business and government have been working hard to deliver. These are among many steps that need to be taken.
But I feel positive that we are moving in the right direction, both on the vaccine programme and the economic policy changes needed. We all have a responsibility to maintain this momentum and getting ourselves vaccinated is the minimum we can do.
Busi Mavuso is CEO Business Leadership South Africa.