South Africa: Covid-19 Roundup | Class Divide, Vaccine Hope

The early stage of a British vaccine trial has delivered promising results, while the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to expose South Africa's inequality.

Another vaccine breakthrough

A Covid-19 vaccine being developed by the University of Oxford in England is showing positive results. The trial, which involves more than 1 000 participants, produced a strong immune response. After a single injection, 90% of participants grew neutralising antibodies that help block infection.

This clinical trial is the same one being carried out in South Africa, in which 2 000 people were accepted to participate in late June. The next step of the trial is to see if the vaccine can protect effectively against a SARS-CoV-2 infection, say trial leaders at the university.

Covid-19's class divide

As the coronavirus pandemic reaches its peak in Gauteng, now the epicentre in South Africa, cases continue to cleave along socio-geographic lines.

As of 23 July 2020, more than half of the 62 320 confirmed cases in Johannesburg were reported in Soweto, the inner city and Region E, which the Alexandra township falls under.

Pay cut or retrenchment

Many industries are moving ahead with mass retrenchments, which they claim are related to profit losses during the pandemic. Steel giant ArcelorMittal has labelled these retrenchments a "large-scale reorganisation in response to the Covid-19 pandemic".

The company says about 35% of their 7 084 workers face retrenchment in September unless they agree to take a 25% pay cut. The workers' union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), has condemned the plan and held protests outside the company's plants this week.

In its Section 189 letter to unions proposing retrenchment, ArcelorMittal management says that unless workers take the pay cut, it will retrench all contract workers, reduce the hours for workers on flexible-hours contracts and retrench permanent workers. Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act governs the procedures for fair and lawful retrenchment.

Should it go ahead with retrenchments, the company says it will not pay retrenchment packages or accrued holiday pay in one lump sum but will spread the payments out over a number of months.

Numsa regional secretary for Sedibeng Kabelo Ramokhathali is not convinced it is necessary to cut jobs, "given that last year approximately 350 employees were forcefully retrenched while at least 700 accepted voluntary severance packages".

He says 1 000 workers at the ArcelorMittal plant in Saldanha, Western Cape, had already lost their jobs when the plant there closed down recently.

"The job losses could be far more if you consider the impact on subcontractors," he says.

KwaZulu-Natal PPE corruption

KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala this week expressed serious concerns over the findings of a forensic investigation that revealed flagrant disregard for and abuse of procurement processes during the acquisition of personal protective equipment (PPE) and blankets by the Department of Social Development.

"The investigators have recommended that, in addition to the disciplinary procedures, in some areas cases be opened with the SAPS [South African Police Service] on collusion and corruption between officials and service providers," says Zikalala.

The investigation was launched after the department failed to follow proper procedures to buy blankets in March and PPE worth millions meant for schools around KwaZulu-Natal went missing. The approximate loss to the department as a result of the misrepresentation amounts to more than R15 million.

The recovery of the amounts from some of the suppliers should be instituted for non-delivery, it was further recommended. "We are very concerned about the prima facie evidence of collusion between officials and suppliers. However, as the report recommends, this warrants an investigation by the SAPS, and this will have to be actioned as such," says Zikalala.

Water concerns

The Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation has revealed that water levels at the Vaal Dam "stand at 43.4%, which is down from last week's 44.1% and 65.3% during the same week last year".

With calls to constantly wash hands, the decrease in water is a concern. "The Integrated Vaal River System, which consists of 14 dams, including the Vaal Dam, has decreased from 64.2% last week to this week's 63.7%. This points to a decrease over time as the dam stood at 69.9% during the same time in the preceding year," said the department.

Mboweni's budget criticised

Several food security social justice groups say Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni's recent supplementary budget will deepen poverty for small-scale fishers and farmers who, despite receiving no support, have started feeding schemes in their areas. They say the austerity budget, which reduces government spending, is based on an incorrect assumption that if the economy is "stabilised", money will trickle down to the impoverished.

"This pandemic has shown us the grassroots level suffering of our people. Government is putting more support into commercial farmers. We are living hand to mouth. This budget will affect the health of our poor people," says Moipone Jwayi of the Rural Women's Assembly.

Andile Mapisa, a farmer from the Inyanda National Land Movement in the Eastern Cape, says: "We are struggling even right now to grow and develop our produce. This budget cut is challenging, and a lot of us young farmers are going to suffer. Government is always supporting the big commercial farmers who are producing food just to export it. Government should give support to small-scale farmers so that we can produce more food locally.

"We need more land and water as well, and there is poor water infrastructure in rural areas. Now, Buffalo City Municipality has cut off the water connection that we made to irrigate our crops. We were producing fresh food for our own soup kitchen on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for those people who are on medication, so that they do not default on their treatment."

Solene Smit, a fisher from Langebaan in the Western Cape who depends on fishing to support her family, says, "Small-scale fishers are exactly in the same position as small-scale farmers. We get no support from the government even though we are very important for food security. The new budget has no subsidies or financial support for small-scale fishers. There isn't even 1% set aside to help us. We did not even get one food parcel since this pandemic started, yet we started our own soup kitchen for fisher people. For 20 years, never have I heard of anything in the budget for fisher people. We need an immediate Covid-19 relief fund for fishers."

Premier defends controversial scooters

In a briefing on 21 July, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane defended the controversial R10 million medical scooter project, despite heavy criticism. "It's a service that we need. We have got to reconcile it with the other issues ... to make a point that we remove all doubt and negativity around it," he said.

The 100 scooters fitted with a gazebo, bed and first aid kit were acquired to bolster primary healthcare in rural areas, where people sometimes cart the ill to hospitals in wheelbarrows.

Despite initially endorsing the scooters, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has criticised them for not meeting the requirements to be used as ambulances for patients. They can also be purchased on a popular online shopping site for cheaper than what the government paid for them.

Hospital capacity and conditions have deteriorated further in the Eastern Cape, which had a failing health system before the pandemic. During a parliamentary health committee sitting on 22 July, members of Parliament expressed frustration at Sibongile Zungu, the head of the provincial project management unit, who presented plans on how to address the crisis without timelines.

Contrary to all evidence, Mabuyane has been pleased with his province's response to Covid-19, claiming that leaders have been proactive. But on Thursday 23 July, Nelson Mandela Bay was put under administration after calls to place the entire province under administration. Before that decision, Mkhize said the whole country needed help, referring to reinforcements that had been sent to the Free State, Gauteng and Western Cape.

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