As Covid Cases Surge, South Africa Eschews Weekend Vaccinations

South Africa’s nascent vaccination rollout has drawn heavy criticism for only administering doses on weekdays -- even as a third wave of coronavirus infections rips through the nation.

The decision to break off for the weekend, which the government has said is based on personnel and financial constraints, has angered opposition parties and perplexed public-health specialists.

“It doesn’t make sense,” said Alex van den Heever, chairman of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand. “When you offset it against the risks, there is enough money floating around. It’s tiny compared with the risks we are facing.”

The Monday-to-Friday timetable adds to the list of complaints about the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly regarding vaccines. The state failed to sign advance orders with pharmaceutical companies last year while many countries were organizing supplies, leaving the nation scrambling to conclude late deals.

Meanwhile, a surge of cases driven by the Delta variant threatens to overwhelm hospitals in the country’s economic hub of Gauteng. President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the country in the strictest form of lockdown since May 2020 at the start of the week.

Slow Start

While the vaccination of health workers began in February, doses were only made available to the general public in May. That left South Africa lagging many of its emerging-market peers, and for a while some poorer nations elsewhere on the continent.

Just over 3 million doses of the Pfizer Inc. and Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered at the half point of the year, some way short of the 40 million the government says will achieve so-called herd immunity. While some private companies are vaccinating over the weekend, just over 1,300 people were inoculated on Sunday June 27, compared with more than 120,000 on Wednesday.

By contrast Argentina, Chile and Morocco have all administered about 20 million doses. Elsewhere in Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique are also not vaccinating on weekends.

‘Lives Lost’

“It is purely an issue of human resources,” Popo Maja, a spokesman for the National Department of Health, said in a response to queries. “We do have staff but it is stretched out.”

With over 60,000 official deaths from Covid-19 and almost 2 million infections, South Africa is the nation hardest hit by the disease on the continent. Last year the economy contracted by the most in a century because of the impact of the outbreak.

“South Africans are waiting to be vaccinated and need to be vaccinated as soon as possible,” the opposition Democratic Alliance said in a statement. “Every delay is measured in lives lost.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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