South Africa eyes post-Covid future, but ‘we are not out of the woods yet’ warns Mkhize

By Nicholas Norbrook
Posted on Friday, 19 February 2021 13:36, updated on Monday, 22 February 2021 09:06

Virus Outbreak South Africa Vaccines
Be brave! South African President Cyril Ramaphosa receives a Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (Gianluigi Guercia/Pool via AP)

Third and fourth waves are still a distinct possibility for South Africa warns health minister Zweli Mkhize. A major coup in securing 9 million doses of the single shot Johnson and Johnson vaccines should help South Africa gain population immunity in 2021. For Mkhize, the pandemic reveals the need for South Africa to push on to its target of national health insurance.

South Africa has faced tough times during its battle with Covid-19, admits health minister Zweli Mkhize in an interview with The Africa Report.

Hospitals have been overwhelmed in recent months, after a more virulent strain of the virus ripped through densely-populated areas.

“Even if the numbers are coming down, we are not out of the woods yet”, he warns.

We have been able to vaccinate our health workers who have been on the frontlines”.

“We are still waiting for the modelling, but what we fear is that we could have a third wave before winter, and perhaps a fourth after winter”.

South Africa’s winter starts in June.

‘Hope and optimism’

The initiation of South Africa’s vaccination programme however, is “the beginning of a real era of hope and optimism”, says Mhkise. “In particular we have been able to vaccinate our health workers who have been on the frontlines”.

Last week, South Africa halted use of the Oxford-developed AstraZeneca vaccine, because of concerns over efficacy. It has since offered the shots to the African Union.

South Africa has instead chosen Johnson and Johnson’s single shot vaccine, which proved more effective against the Covid-19 variant present in the country, securing nine million doses.

President Cyril Ramaphosa received his first jab alongside Mkhize and healthcare workers in Khayelitsha in Cape Town on Wednesday 17 February.

Praise to criticism

Ramaphosa has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic – after initially winning praise for an early lockdown in March 2020.

Mkhize believes the country has done all it can to get on the right path to vaccination, given the financial constraints South Africa faces.

For example, he says the countries that started early were those that had resources to hedge on a large number of vaccine manufacturers before they were properly proven to be effective. “We had to wait until scientific evidence and guidance, so that we know where to concentrate our investment”.

He also thinks more praise is due for South Africa’s scientific community, that has helped manage the country’s pivot from the AstraZeneca to the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. “There have been huge steps forwards in the area of genomics”, says Mhkize who points to the number of accomplished scientists involved in global research efforts.

“Innovation comes out of these processes, we need to take advantage of the research capacity to grow in scientific and pharmaceutical endeavours”, says Mkhize, who believes the crisis should be used as a catalyst for South Africa to double down on its strength in pharmaceutical industries, and become a hub for the continent. “What is consumed in Africa should be made in Africa”, he says.

Biovac project

To that effect, South Africa’s government is leaning into the Biovac project, a public-private partnership that is seeking to manufacture vaccines in the country. “We need investment in equipment, in technology transfer, and we need to link the development of [Biovac] to the procurement power of government”.

That may seem reasonable to those who champion a mixed model of the economy where both private sector and state have their role to play. But in healthcare, ideological fights quickly dominate facts on the ground.

President Barack Obama ran into similar headwinds in his attempts to bring down healthcare costs in the US in his first term.

By bringing together a group of top business leaders, he was able to use arguments that relied on economic self-interest to convince them to back his healthcare reform plans. In essence: aggregate healthcare costs in the US were out of control, eating into consumer’s discretionary spending… dollars that could otherwise be being spent on their product.

Mkhize believes the same arguments will work in South Africa. “Investing in quality healthcare is investment in a healthier population, and a healthy population is the foundation of a thriving economy”.

Nevertheless, the pushback is fierce

“We are having the same ideological arguments. Private healthcare in South Africa is providing care to around 16% of the population at roughly equal cost to the 84% of the population”.

Until we are all safe, no one is safe!”

Mkhize is backing the creation of a national health insurance system, “and in that process we find that there are others who are very reluctant to move in that direction”.

“South Africans need to understand that part of the process of liberating our people is the provision of equity in access to health services”, he says. “There is a global movement towards universal health coverage.”

Might a similar argument might be made globally about the coronavirus itself, similarly using arguments around self-interest alongside those of equality?

In a world where new virulent coronavirus strains keep emerging, would it not be better to get global agreement on stamping out Covid-19 as quickly as possible, to be able to get economies worldwide back on track? If large swathes of the world are unable to get hold of a vaccine, are we not condemning the world to a decade’s worth of disruption?

For Mkhize, it is an argument that is worth having. “We will never make this point enough. It has to be raised on each and every platform, the G7, G20, European Union, US government… Until we are all safe, no one is safe!”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options