South Africa only started coronavirus vaccinations in the last two weeks, but President Cyril Ramaphosa says the country is moving forward, with more than 67,000 health workers inoculated in the first 10 days as part of the first stage.
“The start of our vaccination campaign has so far gone extremely well,” he said in a televised address on Sunday. “It has shown what we can achieve much when we work together as a government, the scientific community, the private sector and community-based organizations. All provinces have established vaccination sites and have put in place plans for the expansion of the program as it will be gaining momentum.”
The second phase will start around late April to include the elderly, essential workers, those who work or live in institutions, and those with other health risks. In all, South Africa hopes to vaccinate 40 million of its nearly 59 million people.
Ramaphosa also announced that South Africa would drop its coronavirus restrictions to one, the lowest possible level. The eased regulations still require masks to be worn in public, and place limits on alcohol sales and crowd sizes, but represent the most lenient restrictions the country has seen in a year. In all, the nation has seen more than 1.5 million confirmed cases, the highest burden on the African continent, and close to 50,000 deaths, according to the latest figures from the Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the global outbreak.
Richard Lessells, one of South Africa’s top viral researchers, says he thinks authorities made the right move in stopping use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it was not found to be entirely effective against the highly contagious variant that has driven most of South Africa’s new infections. The nation has since switched to a mix of different vaccines which have shown greater efficacy against the variant, including the products from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer.
And he says South African regulators are looking at other vaccines, including those made in Russia and China.
Lessells says South Africa’s relatively late start in vaccination wouldn’t have impacted the nation’s deadly second wave.
“Clearly, there was a lot of concern about us being late to the party and late getting started,” he told VOA. “The reality, however, is that whether we'd gotten started early or not, the vaccination wouldn't have impacted on that second wave that we saw, that really dreadful second wave because that was already in motion in December...What's critical now is to get vaccine into as many people as possible before any resurgence and any possible third wave.”
He also said researchers are working to develop a vaccine against the highly contagious new variant.
In Johannesburg, the nation’s economic hub, residents had mixed feelings about the vaccination campaign. Some said they would be eager to get the shot as soon as possible.
“This vaccine is going to help us for this virus of coronavirus,” said 24-year-old Johannesburg resident Eugene Makhubela. “Because many people in South Africa died, because of this virus.”
The Rainbow Nation has a long road ahead. But, says Ramaphosa, this is a country that has known hardship: not just in the difficult fight against the racist apartheid system, but also in fighting its legacy of inequality. On Sunday, he also said the government would continue benefits for those affected economically by the pandemic.
“So much has changed in our country and in our lives,” he said. “But the spirit of our people has not changed. You have endured the greatest hardships, but you have remained resolute, united and hopeful. Now, a year after the virus first reached our shores, we have a clear path towards containing infections and, ultimately, overcoming the disease.”