South African healthcare workers' leaders have urged the president to firm up the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out plans — and honour a pay rise agreed last year.
Health and Education union NEHAWU was responding to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Monday night national address on the COVID-19 pandemic, in which he pledged steps to reduce the strain on South Africa's hospitals and their staff.
“These workers are still dejected by not receiving their salary increase which was due on 1 April 2020," NEHAWU spokesman Khaya Xaba said. "Instead of introducing a danger allowance or a moral incentive, the government saw fit to shower them with empty words of appreciation.”
Public-sector unions took the government to court in December — and lost — in a bid to force it to implement the pay settlement agreed last spring.
Ramaphosa also said his government had belatedly ordered 20 million doses of vaccine, which would be “delivered mainly in the first half of the year”, after widespread criticism from labour, doctors and academics.
But NEHAWU was sceptical of Ramaphosa's claim to have mapped out a "comprehensive" roll-out strategy.
“We have not seen operation elements which include the vaccination training programme for clinicians, education programme for healthcare workers about the vaccine, logistical roll-out and vaccination sites for the aged (Transportation) and emergency reporting for Adverse Event Following Immunisation (AEFI),” Xaba said.
ANC-allied union federation COSATU joined NEHAWU in welcoming Ramaphosa's commitment to fill vacant healthcare jobs, but reiterated its previous criticism of the government's delay in securing vaccine supplies.
"A comprehensive vaccine plan should have been put in place by last December. We will only be convinced when we see the vaccines being delivered, transported, and dispensed," COSATU spokesman Sizwe Pamla said. "Every day lost in rolling out the vaccines sees hundreds of unnecessary deaths."
The Bill Gates-funded Covax, which counts the World Health Organisation, UNICEF and the World Bank among its "partners", had already promised to deliver another 10 million doses, but only by the “second quarter” of 2021 — possibly as late as the end of June. South Africa reportedly paid 327 million rand ($22 million) to Covax just before Christmas as a 15 per cent down-payment on a 2.18 billion rand ($149 million) fee for supplying vaccines.
South Africa has set a target of vaccinating 40 million people — some two-thirds of the population — by the end of the year in order to achieve “herd immunity”. To hit that target, South Africa would need 80 million shots of the two-dose vaccine.
The president said 1.2 million health workers would be the first to be immunised — in line with Covax's doctrine — followed by "essential" workers and those most at risk from the virus: over-60s ands those with co-morbidities.