Coronavirus Corruption Hub South Africa Scolds World for ‘Hoarding’ Vaccines

South Africa
MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

Leftist South African President Cyril Ramaphosa used his remarks at the World Economic Forum at Davos on Tuesday to accuse wealthier countries of “vaccine nationalism” and telling them not to “hoard” doses of vaccine candidates against the Chinese coronavirus.

South Africa has come under fire for organizing one of the least effective responses to the coronavirus pandemic in the world. The nation has documented 1.4 million cases of Chinese coronavirus and 41,117 deaths as of Tuesday. Health Minister Zweli Mkhize speculated in September, however, that the real number of coronavirus cases in the country back then was “probably” 12 million, but the nation did not have sufficient means to test all those who may have been exhibiting symptoms of infection. Mkhize cited antibody testing for his much larger estimate of cases.

South Africa is home to a newly discovered variant of the virus that American public health personality Dr. Anthony Fauci has described as “more ominous” than the original, known strain originating in Wuhan, China. President Joe Biden, once a staunch critic of limiting travel amid a pandemic, expanded travel restrictions on visitors to America to those coming from South Africa on Monday.

South Africa’s coronavirus fight has been complicated by one of the most explosive corruption scandals on the planet, largely involving the $26 billion the nation set aside for emergency economic release in early 2020. Ramaphosa himself admitted in August that his left-wing party, the African National Congress (ANC), was deeply implicated in “looting” the funds. Among the accusations are claims government officials purchased massively overpriced personal protective equipment for health workers — leaving open the question of where the excess money went — and that others handed companies relief funds with the expectation they would pass the money down to employees, but the companies never did.

The South African news service News24 accused Ramaphosa’s government of “fumbling” its attempts to secure coronavirus vaccine doses in an extended exposé published this weekend.

Rather than acknowledging the challenges his government is accused of creating, Ramaphosa used his remarks at Davos to accuse “rich countries” of stunting the quests of developing countries to get their local epidemics under control.

“The rich countries of the world went out and acquired large doses. Some even acquired up to four times what their population needs … to the exclusion of other countries,” Ramaphosa complained, according to Reuters. These remarks do not appear in the written text of his speech on the official website of the South African presidency.

“We need those who have hoarded the vaccines to release the vaccines so that other countries can have them,” News24 quoted Ramaphosa as saying.

In the official government text of his speech, Ramaphosa had prepared to say, more simply, “We are deeply concerned about the problem of ‘vaccine nationalism’, which, unless addressed, will endanger the recovery of all countries. Ending the pandemic worldwide will require greater collaboration on the rollout of vaccines, ensuring that no country is left behind in this effort.”

Ramaphosa did not name any specific “rich country” or accuse any company or state in particular of participating in the “hoarding.” News24 noted that Ramaphosa had most recently signed a deal to buy 1 million doses of a vaccine candidate manufactured in India, which the South African government has vowed will arrive in the country by the end of the month. India is the only nation known to have banned a domestic manufacturer — the Serum Institute of India — from exporting vaccine doses, though that ban has since been revoked. India began restricting drug exports in March 2020, as the Chinese epidemic grew into a global problem.

Elsewhere in his official remarks, Ramaphosa praised the South African government and the African Union, over which he also presided this year.

“Over the course of nine months, and with the support of our social partners, the South African government rolled out a comprehensive set of measures to limit the social and economic impact of the pandemic,” Ramaphosa told the Davos crowd. “While these relief measures have proved vital in keeping many businesses afloat, saving many jobs and keeping millions of South Africans above the poverty line, our attention has now shifted to rebuilding our economy and restoring employment.”

Ramaphosa omitted from his speech that his party’s “relief measures” have faced tremendous corruption challenges on their way to helping South African citizens. As of August, South Africa’s “special investigating unit” for corruption had opened over 600 cases related to contracts to companies for coronavirus supplies. The government itself described the distribution of $26 billion in funds set aside to help South African cope with the economic impacts of the virus as “looting.”

“The allegations of corruption in the procurement of goods and services for our country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has caused outrage among South Africans and among us in the executive,” Ramaphosa said in August. “It is disgraceful that at this time of national crisis, there are companies and individuals who seek to criminally benefit from our efforts to protect people’s health and save lives.”

The president sent an open letter to members of his party, the ruling ANC, accusing them directly of participating in the corruption.

“What has caused the greatest outrage is that there are private sector companies and individuals (including civil servants) who have exploited a grave medical, social, and economic crisis to wrongfully enrich themselves,” the letter read in part. “This is an unforgivable betrayal for the millions of South Africans who are being negatively affected by the impact of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus], experiencing hunger daily, hopelessness, and joblessness.”

“Our movement has been and remains deeply implicated in South Africa’s corruption problem,” Ramaphosa admitted.

Some of the corruption involved funds meant to be distributed to employees by their employers never reaching their intended destinations. Other allegations involved purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“In some cases personal protective equipment (PPE) was bought for five times more than the price the national treasury had advised,” the BBC reported in September, citing then-auditor general of teh country Kimi Makwetu.

“A lot of the effort that we put into this on the detection side of things has revealed a number of frightening findings that require to be followed up very quickly so that there is no significant passage of time before the required actions are implemented,” Makwetu admitted.

In December, a new auditor-general, Tsakani Maluleke, expressed similar concerns. Maluleke noted the dubious nature of some of the contracts for medical equipment and the “inferior and over-priced” nature of what the government purchased.

News24 has questioned the efficiency of the campaign to acquire vaccines in light of the significant allegations of corruption. Its report published last week, the organization noted that the government had claimed to spend the last six months negotiating for contracts to purchase vaccine candidates, but evidence suggests that moves to buy vaccine doses in earnest only began in January 2021.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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