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Covid-19 vaccine shortage reverses initial strides

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A WIDESPREAD Covid-19 vaccine shortage a few months after Zimbabwe launched a nationwide vaccination programme is proof that the government’s plan to inoculate 60% of the population by December could be rather ambitious.

NYASHA CHINGONO
A large number of Zimbabweans seeking their second dose of the Sinovac jab have been turned away, with health officials reporting acute shortages at designated vaccination centres around the country.

Many others seeking the first dose have also been turned away.

In Bulawayo, health officials had to suspend vaccination a fortnight ago after vaccines ran out.

Vaccination centres in Harare have turned away hundreds seeking either their second or first doses, triggering panic.

Many who are due for their Sinovac second dose have expressed fear that the delay could affect the efficacy of the vaccines.

With millions in panic and health officials helpless, the government could only allay public concerns by saying the country will receive doses soon.

Cabinet this week said the country will receive 500 000 doses. It is apparent that a health crisis in looming and urgent intervention is required.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is failing to communicate effectively to an increasingly panicky public.

Although Zimbabweans were initially skeptical about the vaccination programme amid a lot of disinformation aided by the government’s poor communication, the vaccination programme has been well received as evidenced by the large number of people thronging vaccination centres in recent weeks.

Zimbabwe was doing well on the vaccination front, but the failure to acquire enough vaccines is threatening to undo the positives.

The country’s vaccine plan has been largely dependent on Chinese donations and, while this was a welcome development in kickstarting the programme, it is not sustainable.

Finance minister Mthuli Ncube’s claim that the government had budgeted US$100 million for the purchase of vaccines, is now questionable, given that vaccines have run out at most centres countywide.

The government’s failure to plan properly or, as some commentators have put it, planning on the basis of donations, could come back to haunt the country.

With a third wave expected this winter and a collapsing healthcare system which has suffered decades of neglect, a failed vaccination programme would add salt to injury.

“It is difficult to know but government is in denial. Whatever plan they had seems to have fallen apart,” political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said.

Mandaza said government officials tasked with communicating vaccination progress had become unreliable.

Political analyst Stephen Chan said the Chinese may not continue donating vaccines to Zimbabwe, therefore it becomes important for the government to purchase its own doses.

“The Chinese vaccine has now been approved by the WHO (World Health  Organisation) and our own estimates of its efficacy have risen, so it is a good choice. But, as I have said before, vaccines are expensive to produce. And they cannot be produced in a hurry. Even with the Chinese, if you cannot pay, they are unlikely to keep repeating donation after donation,” Chan said.

“You do need two jabs in light of the swift spread of the South African variant of Covid. My concern is that, although the government claims it has budgeted US$100 million for vaccine purchase, it does not have US$100 million. I do hope I am wrong,” Chan added.

Amid growing public concern, some observers argue that the shortages are artificial. Further, the mathematics is not adding up.

According to the government, as of 31 May, 675 678 people in Zimbabwe had received their first dose of the Covid vaccine, while 344 400 had received their second. Zimbabwe has taken delivery of 1.5 million doses of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, while India has donated 35 000 shots of the Covaxin vaccine.

If the inoculation figures published by the government are anything to go by, then the shortages may have been deliberately created for profit.

Last week, The NewsHawks reported that the vaccination programme had turned elitist, with only those with foreign currency getting their second jab of the Sinovac vaccine.

The vaccines are now readily available at private clinics such as Health Point in Harare where they are going for US$20 for locals and US$50 for foreigners.

Initially, the government had planned to sell the vaccines to the public, but later reversed the decision after an uproar.

In February, Finance minister Ncube said private citizens would pay for the vaccine and later said the donated vaccines would be free.

“Look, private citizens obviously would have to pay for the vaccine as we have maintained the vaccine is actually cheaper than some of the personal private equipment (PPE) that they are procuring,” he said in an interview with state media.

“So, there will be some payment model so that government can recoup the cost of procurement.”

While the first doses are unavailable at most public institutions, the facilities still able to administer the second dose are now limiting the numbers.

“The question is how did they get the vaccines? I knew it was too good to be true. These are artificial shortages,” Mandaza said.

As enterprising health centres are sprouting and taking advantage of a desperation situation, President Emmerson Mnangagwa should show leadership, stop posturing and spell out a clear plan towards covering 60% head immunity.

Plugging leaks in the publics health system is also crucial so that the vaccines do not end up in the hands of profiteers, some of whom are connected to corrupt government officials.

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