Covid-19 vaccine rollout – why the government needs a lot of help from its friends

I am not yet 60, and so I won’t be getting a Covid-19 vaccine any time soon.

But it’s not clear that anyone over the age of 60 is getting a vaccine any time soon either. The South African government’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout plan has it that phase two begins on May 17, 2021 – but there is general skepticism that this will in fact happen.

A May 1, 2021 Moneyweb report notes that:

The country’s rollout is proceeding at a pace much slower than expected. To date just over 293 000 South Africans have had received their jab, which represents only a fraction of the 1.25 million healthcare workers who are first in line. This adds up to about 0.5% of the general population. The initial target of having 67% of the country’s citizens vaccinated by the end of 2021 is now unlikely to be achieved.

The same Moneyweb article notes the many and real issues South Africa and many other developing nations have faced in laying their hands on the precious vaccines. It then goes on to say:

Secondly, (the government) needs to clarify urgently what the requirements are for the involvement of private medical providers in the vaccine rollout. It also needs to expand the number of platforms (such as local clinics, GP practices, pharmacies, and private and state facilities) on which the vaccines are rolled out. If ever there was a need for public-private collaboration it is now – both in terms of funding vaccines and in providing platforms. This would enable large-scale vaccination to occur at the pace needed to turn the tide against Covid-19 in South Africa. (My emphasis)

I’d go further though. It’s going to take more than collaborating with private medical providers to get this show on the road. Many, many South Africans will simply not be able to get to private pharmacies, and their local clinics (if functioning) are likely to be overwhelmed.

Other ways of getting millions of people vaccinated in a short space of time are going to have to be found.

The expertise is there

Looked at from a project management perspective, there are a lot of moving parts: procurement, safe distribution of both the vaccine and all the associated medical supplies, a wide array of venues in sometimes inaccessible areas, pharmaceutical prep areas, trained staff to administer the vaccines – to name just the main things I can think of off the top of my head.

On current showing the government is simply not going to be able to get this done.

But I can think of several organisations that have the know-how (or parts of the know-how).

Venues: The Independent Electoral Commission runs successful elections in all the far-flung areas of the country every couple of years. Their database of venues large and small is surely the place to start when thinking about vaccination venues? And could their database of workers be roped in to help with the administration at each of the venues?

Distribution: There is not a tavern or spaza shop in the country that cannot be reached by the trucks of South African Breweries and Coca-Cola. Even if their vehicles are not able to offer adequate refrigeration, their intimate knowledge of getting products into every corner of the country would be invaluable.

Project management: South Africa organises several world-class mass events every year – the Argus Cycle Tour and the Comrades Marathon spring to mind. The people who organise these events must know a thing or two about juggling a lot of balls and getting things done to a schedule with deadlines. Could a think tank of these experts not be put to work with the Department of Health to figure out how to get this done?

I’d wager that if any corporates were approached by the government they would be more than willing to pitch in, in service of their long-term bottom lines.

Look… I’m aware that a mass vaccination project has complicated ethical dimensions; I know that things are rarely as simple as they look. I know that bringing corporates into a medical setting might be fraught with issues. And there are undoubtedly transformation and equity issues that would need to be addressed.

But the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s time to use all the expertise we have to get as many people vaccinated as we can, as fast as we can. That means partnerships at every level of this massive project.

My message to the government is simple: ask for help, people!

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Main photo: Spencer Davis on Unsplash

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