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President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that vaccines are vital in overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic, emphasising that false information and fake news can put lives at risk.

Ramaphosa dedicated his weekly newsletter to government’s efforts to roll out the first consignment of Covid-19 vaccines from the Serum Institute in India.

“It will signal the start of a mass vaccination campaign that will be the most ambitious and extensive in our country’s history,” Ramaphosa said.

He added that the first vaccines to arrive would be provided to healthcare workers, who would be targeted in the first phase. The second phase would include essential workers, teachers, the elderly and those with co-morbidities. The third phase would include other adults in the population.

“A comprehensive rollout strategy and an accompanying logistical framework will be implemented in partnership with the private sector, civil society, traditional leadership, the religious sector and others. It is vital that this is a society-wide campaign, in which everyone is involved and no one is left behind.”

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Challenge misconceptions

Ramaphosa said government had already embarked on an extensive communications campaign to educate the population about the Covid-19 vaccine, and to challenge many of the misconceptions in circulation.

“For its part, government will work to improve all its channels of communication, to keep the public regularly informed on the development of the vaccination programme, to provide information that is accurate and factual, and to continue to engage with and listen to the broad range of voices in our society.”

Ramaphosa also addressed concerns about government’s alleged fumbling in securing vaccines by failing to ensure it engaged early and timeously with vaccine makers resulting in a delayed arrival of vaccines in the country.

Despite claiming to have been in talks with pharmaceutical companies for “six months”, government only started confirming deals with manufacturers in January – in the face of a groundswell of criticism, News24 earlier reported.

Deals with manufacturers to be released

Ramaphosa said that vaccines would arrive “soon”, adding that government has been working, both through multilateral initiatives and direct negotiations with manufacturers, to ensure South Africa can make the best use of vaccines when they become available.

“There has been concern that government has not been sufficiently transparent about these efforts. However, as we did with the announcement on the Serum Institute, the details of deals with manufacturers will be released as and when negotiations are concluded and we are released from the communications terms of the non-disclosure agreements,” Ramaphosa said.

“This is commonplace in such circumstances, and most governments have had to comply with similar restrictions. We recognise that it is important that the public must be kept abreast of developments on vaccine acquisition at all times. And government must be held to account for all the decisions it makes in this regard.

“Freedom of speech and open public debate are cornerstones of our democracy, as is the media’s right to scrutinise and interrogate all government’s policies and decisions.

“Throughout the pandemic, government has been open and transparent with the South African people on the health measures it is taking to secure our people’s safety. We have sought to explain all our decisions, to listen to people’s concerns and to continuously update the country on the state of the disease. When it comes to fighting a deadly pandemic like this, honesty and trust are just as valuable as any vaccine,” Ramaphosa said.

Extensive, protracted negotiations

He added that – given the unprecedented global demand for vaccine doses, combined with the far greater buying power of wealthier countries – government had to engage in extensive and protracted negotiations with manufacturers to secure enough vaccines to reach South Africa’s adult population.

“We have also worked closely with the global COVAX facility and the African Union’s Vaccine Acquisition Task Team as part of the collective effort to secure vaccines for the world’s low- and middle-income countries. The doses that South Africa will receive through its participation in these initiatives, together with the agreements being made directly with manufacturers, should ensure that the country has sufficient vaccines to contain the spread of the virus.

“We have a massive task ahead of us, probably far greater than any of us has ever undertaken before. But if we work together, if we support and trust each other and if we keep the lines of communication open, we will certainly succeed,” Ramaphosa said.

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