Coronavirus vaccines have arrived – will this rescue us?
After a great deal of public clamour, media noise, and anxious expectations, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines have finally arrived. What can we expect?
Undoubtedly, we have in vaccines one of the most powerful weapons to combat disease. It has been said that, other than the provision of clean water, vaccines have done more for public health than any other intervention.
One only needs to look at the eradication of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, and the drastic reduction of many infectious diseases – which almost all of our young doctors of today have never seen, such as polio and diphtheria and even measles – to marvel at the power of vaccines.
Unfortunately, but realistically, we cannot have the same expectation for COVID-19 vaccines. Viruses like measles and polio behave themselves and maintain their respective vaccine targets. Not so the COVID-19 coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Here, we have a far wilier opponent.
Truth be told, we didn’t expect this virus to be as changeable as it is. (The genome, the total genetic structure of this virus, is a long piece of RNA, unlike the fragments of the influenza virus, and also unlike the mutable reverse transcription mechanism of the HIV virus.)
It did indeed surprise us, for it didn’t take long for its many mutations to appear. Surprise turned to anxiety when it became apparent that some of these mutations were positioned in critical parts of its structure, that very part of the virus which is targeted by the immune defensive response following infection or vaccination.
Fortunately, our immune system and our immune responses to infection are more complex than merely making antibodies, and vaccines may still work in spite of worrying signals coming from the laboratory. However, what it does tell us is that we cannot presume that what you find with many other vaccines will similarly apply to controlling COVID-19.
Nevertheless, there are two factors in our favour in dealing with the challenges of this virus. First, there is our science of vaccinology. The development of vaccines and understanding of how they work is now advanced and sophisticated. So much so that the necessary adjustments to the vaccine needed to meet the changing of the virus’ targets can be done quite effortlessly and relatively quickly.
Second, and fortunately for us, as contagious as the virus is especially in certain superspreading settings, its infectivity is considerably less than (say) measles, and the herd immunity threshold is correspondingly lower.
So, what does all this mean with regard to planning how vaccines will be used to control the epidemic? The rollout will basically be structured into two parts. The aim of the first part, consisting of two phases, is to protect those most at risk of being infected. The highest priority of these will be healthcare workers, who will be the first phase. The most vulnerable of society will be in phase two – the elderly, those with underlying illnesses (comorbidities), key personnel for the running of the country, and people living in crowded or congregate environments.
Attention can then be turned to part two, to reach as many of the rest of the adult population in order to achieve herd immunity. Children aren’t currently approved to receive the vaccine.
What do we hope the vaccine will achieve? We cannot expect it to do what the polio vaccine did for polio or the measles vaccine for measles. What we do want to see, however, is a future which avoids the healthcare system, hospitals, and healthcare workers, from being swamped, as we experienced during the first and second waves.
We will want to return to our pre-COVID-19 lives, without the restrictions, without the masks, and having functions and celebrations as before.
This will certainly not happen as soon as the vaccination kicks off. It didn’t happen in the United Kingdom, the first country to commence population immunisation. In fact, two months after commencing its rollout, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a second wave considerably more severe than the first wave, and necessitating the strictest of lockdowns.
Until herd immunity is reached, we will still need to continue strict adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions while the vaccines do their work. That target will take many months and beyond the year to reach.
The COVID-19 pandemic will go away and vaccines will certainly play a major role together with human behaviour. The virus won’t disappear. The only virus that has ever been eradicated is smallpox.
What we are hoping for in the post-COVID-19 era is a virus which will no longer be totally new to the human population. In history, it has been those viruses introduced into totally naïve and therefore totally susceptible populations, causing so-called virgin-soil epidemics, which have devastated populations. (Measles and smallpox introduced by European invaders in the 16th century to the native populations of the Americas resulted in catastrophic epidemics, wiping out major portions of indigenous populations.) When COVID-19 is no longer new and the virus no longer meets a totally susceptible human population, immunity from vaccines and past infections will produce barriers to stop the spread of the virus.
In the future, there may well be spikes of COVID-19 respiratory infections, hopefully much more trivial, which we will come to tolerate. This will be much like we do for their coronavirus cousins, which are responsible for our annual winter colds, along with many other viruses.
Perhaps some lessons of hygiene practices may continue to be part of our everyday lives. We may well even adopt some of the cultural practices so common in the Far East, like wearing masks in public places when we have a cold, or hand-hygiene practices.
We will come out of this miserable pandemic, but the more conscientious we are about maintaining our non-pharmaceutical interventions to assist the work of vaccines, the sooner that day will come.
- Professor Barry Schoub is the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. He is emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
From despair to reunion – COVID-19 travel lock opens
“Please – next time he’s going to kill her! Help me get my daughter away from him and to the UK so we can keep her safe!”
“It’s just not fair! I can’t get anyone at the embassy to answer my emails! He’ll die before we get to see him!”
“My ex-wife isn’t mentally stable and I have been granted full custody by the court, but I can’t get a visa appointment to get my child to me in the US!”
“The South African High Commission said I should have applied for retention of citizenship but my Irish citizenship isn’t through yet and now I’m stateless. Dirco and Home Affairs won’t help, and my baby and I need to get home to her dad. Now what?”
“I don’t have it in me to carry on! It’s been nearly two years and will never end. I can’t bear the pain and the hospitals are just too expensive. No one here in Malaysia cares about me! Kim, please help me!”
Daily calls like these are the reason I do what I do around the clock. I find ways to get as many as I can to their loved ones. While most are elated that holiday destinations are at long last opening up, I empathise with those relieved that they are finally in sight of an end to the desperation they’ve been subjected to. For them, it has felt like an eternity since COVID-19 sabotaged their lives.
The calls and messages come in so frequently, I’ve seldom had time to reminisce over the successes of those I’ve been fortunate to help. It’s a blur of calming one individual after another. Each one has a story, and each story deserves to be patiently supported.
I take them on, but dare not take them in. Occasionally, I catch myself empathising too deeply, and have to remind myself that my shoulders need to remain strong to carry that person. Because later, another will need reinforcement to get through the night, and they will get past this moment.
Tourism isn’t simply about Mr and Mrs Newlywed being able to go on that dream honeymoon, or the kids getting to run on the white beaches of Mauritius. For me, it’s about travel agents eventually being able to feed their children; airline staff who have been sitting at home penniless getting that long-awaited call that they are needed back at work; hospitality staff at long last being able to feel the exhaustion they’ve missed from full hotels.
The list goes on of those who not only have taken far too many months of strain on their overdrafts, but who can wake up with a sense of pride and meaning they have long forgotten.
Embassy staff are slowly being granted permission to help as their hands are untied from the bans and regulations they had no say over. I feel for those always having to be the bearer of bad news. I know the relief of finally being able to deliver good news to the members of Community Circle Home SA for a change.
For many, it’s the injustice of it all that hurts them – being forced to pay the exorbitant cost of hotel quarantine in order to get home for someone who has lost their job, or having to stay two weeks in another country simply to get to their final destination, away from work, and risking infection at each step – these are among the issues coming to an end for South Africans.
Governments are slowly peeling away layers of regulations. The opening of these countries means fuller, cheaper flights. We’re seeing more cost-effective options for COVID-19 testing-to-fly allowed and in many cases, no testing at all. Right now, we’re mostly able to go where we want to, when we want to, at more affordable prices, and above all, with less stress.
For those who are fully vaccinated, the world has started to open up at a rapid pace. But for the vaccine hesitant, their choice is all but made for them as their need to get to loved ones in many cases depends on those two shots they weren’t sure they wanted to have. No one should be forced into a choice like that based on travel, but the alternative is a weight they cannot bear.
The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our insatiable need for instant gratification, a need we’ve grown accustomed to having met. Most find the simple act of waiting their hardest battle. I wonder if we’ll remember the lesson thrown our way, or slip back into old habits, forgetting to appreciate each moment afforded to us.
The United Kingdom has finally removed us from the red list. The United States just announced that it is lifting our ban. Israel and Australia are following close behind. The vaccinated are being welcomed into more and more countries, with options for the unvaccinated fewer, but in some cases still possible with additional testing or self-quarantine. The pressure is slowly releasing. The stress of navigating the minefield of regulations is becoming easier to manage. We hold space for those who wish the country they need to open would “just get on with it”. Till then, Community Circle is here to help you to take that strategic pause, work through the regulations you need to navigate, and travel with you.
For those traveling, stay safe! Airports and destinations are filling up at a time when the virus is still active. As tourism opens, countries are experiencing spikes in their numbers and at any given moment, variants or bans can suddenly re-appear. South Africa still insists on a negative PCR test, which can prove difficult for those who recover from COVID-19 abroad and continue to test positive due to intermittent shedding. COVID-19 insurance cover is an essential, and I urge you to remain plausibly cautious when budgeting for trips abroad that may take an unexpected turn.
But above all, relish every new memory made with the loved ones you’ve missed so dearly, and spare a thought for those who will hopefully be allowed to enjoy the same thing soon.
- Kim Kur is the founder and lead volunteer for Community Circle Home SA on Facebook.
Service delivery comes last in race for power
We are less than three weeks away from a local government election, and it’s likely to be our most chaotic and fractious since 1994. The country has been under lockdown for 18 months, and this has had a direct effect on voter registration and political campaigning. Voter turnout will probably reach a 15-year low.
Ironically, just as political participation and education has been declining, the need for clean, accountable local government has never been greater. The vast majority of municipalities – including the City of Johannesburg – have unacceptably high levels of financial risk and service delivery failures.
The long-term decline in national government’s finances plus the persistent corruption and maladministration at municipal level has resulted in infrastructural backlogs, above-inflation increases in service tariffs, and cash shortages in many municipalities.
Municipalities’ core function is to provide basic service delivery (water, electricity, sanitation, and rubbish removal). In addition, larger municipalities provide basic health services, police, firefighting, emergency medical services, and more. Municipalities are also tasked with the spatial development of communities, working with other spheres of government to formalise housing and drive local economic development.
It’s critical that voters make an informed choice in the elections, and vote for candidates and parties with a track record of community service and good governance. Unfortunately, voters have less information than ever about their political choices: parties have been unable to campaign effectively under lockdown, and new candidates are mostly unknown to their wards and communities.
Our electoral system also leads to a few practises that make it harder for voters to make an informed choice. For example, many political parties take advantage of a legal loophole to field the same ward candidates across multiple wards. This is done in order to maximise a party’s votes and increase the number of seats it can win in council, but it leads to parties fielding candidates who are weak and not representative of the wards where they are standing.
In the City of Johannesburg metro alone, there are 54 parties and 44 independent candidates. At least 25 of these parties have registered ward candidates in every ward across the metro. Many – if not most – of these candidates have been chosen to make up the numbers, not because they have experience in government or are dedicated to serving their communities. Most voters in the metro will have to choose from more than 25 ward candidates with little to no information about them.
Basic service delivery isn’t an exciting idea for most voters or parties, and parties tend to campaign on issues which have nothing to do with local government or service delivery. Many parties make promises or commitments which are completely unrealistic and unachievable. This just adds to voters’ confusion, and increases their apathy towards political participation.
Many voters, including members of the Jewish community, make ballot choices based on ideology and gut feel. In past elections, the African Christian Democratic Party has been touted as a viable choice because of its pro-Israel stance. ActionSA has incorporated xenophobia and border control in its 2021 campaign, parties like the Patriotic Alliance and the Cape Coloured Congress have appealed to racial identity, while the African National Congress (ANC) and Economic Freedom Fighters have used populist slogans and messaging to appeal to voters. Even the Democratic Alliance, which has a proven track record of service delivery in the Western Cape, has resorted to negative campaigning and comparisons with the ANC’s governance failures.
None of these issues have a link to service delivery and clean, accountable government.
What should voters and communities consider before casting their votes? Unfortunately, there’s not much time to learn more about candidates, and there is little information available. The Electoral Commission’s website does have a portal for the 2021 local government election where voters can download candidate lists. These lists are in PDF format, and are difficult to navigate.
Even if voters can create a shortlist of the parties and candidates in their ward, there’s not much that they can do to learn about those candidates. It’s possible to google the candidates’ names and research their social-media presence, but not all candidates have an online profile. Some candidates have done their best to campaign in recent weeks and reach constituents, but they are in the minority.
The truth is that the hard work really begins after the election date. It’s highly likely that there will be more coalitions in Johannesburg and Pretoria. The track record of coalitions over the past five years is poor: many coalitions have collapsed and others have been sabotaged. Ordinary South Africans will need to become more involved in political life beyond the election cycle in order to improve governance and service delivery.
At The Third Republic, we are dedicated to the research needed to hold local government more accountable, to track public spending, and council decisions. We invite you, the reader, to work with us over the next five years to ensure that local government improves and that communities are able to participate in the decision-making that affects service delivery and local development.
- Paul Berkowitz is a director at The Third Republic, a non-profit organisation working to deepen democracy and political participation across South Africa.
Arab-Israeli gangsterism a massive security threat
The current violence in Arab-Israeli cities is a greater threat to the state of Israel than Hamas and Hezbollah. The comparison might sound dramatic, but since stating it earlier this week, Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has only reinforced his concerns.
As many as half-a-million illegal weapons are estimated to be in the hands of the Israeli-Arab sector. Their prevalence is widely attributed to the killing of more than 90 Arab citizens since the start of this year in shootings and stabbings. Though some of these deaths have been the result of warfare before mafia families, others involved unlucky bystanders struck by a stray bullet or female victims of domestic violence. Of these cases, less than a quarter have been solved so far, compared with more than 70% in the Jewish community.
Many Arab Israelis say the identities of killers and crime families are well-known to residents and authorities. They complain that the lack of arrests reflects a double standard when it comes to Israeli police dealing with Arab communities.
The problem is further compounded by the lack of faith many Arabs have in the Israeli police’s will and ability to address the problem. A recent survey found that only 17.4% of Israeli Arabs said they trusted the police. The result is a Catch-22, as this lack of faith leads to fewer people being willing to risk co-operating with the police, who in turn have a more difficult time enforcing law and order.
For months now, the Israeli government has been trying to get a grip on the deteriorating security situation. Even the head of the United Arab List, parliamentarian Mansour Abbas, this week again stressed his concern about crime and violence in Arab communities.
But how to deal with it has created problems, with Arabs divided over Jerusalem’s recent announcement that it plans to involve the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in assisting the Israeli police. While some Arabs firmly oppose the idea, others are desperate for any solution that could help quell the escalating violence.
It’s difficult trying to gauge opinion on the Arab street. Most people I approach are afraid to comment. Should they be seen to support the Shin Bet, they could face reprisals in their communities; and should they be seen to publicly oppose its involvement, they could – they tell me – be targeted by Israeli security authorities. The best answer, encapsulating what most people feel, is what one elderly man told me, “I’m doomed if I support the move, and I’m doomed if I don’t!”
As for the Shin Bet itself, its officials say they prefer not to be involved in anything beyond their more regular counter-terrorism missions. These are usually across the Green Line, in Palestinian territories, where suspects can be held for years without charge and prevented from meeting with lawyers.
Jerusalem has consistently argued that such measures are necessary to prevent Palestinian terror attacks, but implementing them against Israeli citizens, albeit against those who are engaged in criminal activity, is a completely different ball game. The major concern, for Jews and Arabs alike, is that it could turn Israel into a police state. Many also question how a technologically advanced country like Israel, that was recently able to catch six escaped Palestinian prisoners within a week, has been unable to break up a few local criminal gangs. Some Arab citizens even suspect the government of deliberately letting the violence run amok in order to weaken the Arab minority in the country.
Several Israeli officials have expressed a popular view among the Israeli political right that “as long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem”. But this violence often spills over into Jewish neighbourhoods, often into nationalistic crimes, as was witnessed in May this year.
At the time, I visited mixed Arab-Israeli cities in the heart of the country that resembled battlegrounds. Car tyres were burning on the streets, shops and homes were barricaded, and many Arab citizens walked around armed. The concern was that those weapons, often stolen from the Israeli military, or smuggled across the border from Jordan, or manufactured in the West Bank, could be turned against the Israeli public. The police were quick to quell the unrest as quickly as it unfolded, leaving many to point out that when the security forces really wanted to deal with the violence, they could.
The new government insists it’s prioritising dealing with the situation. It says it has a detailed plan to improve access and trust in Arab communities that it is ready to put into action after the state budget is passed in November. It calls for recruiting an additional 1 100 police officers, legislative changes to deal more efficiently with economic crime, more use of technology, and an improved witness-protection programme.
The situation has become so bad that in some cases, police are afraid to enter neighbourhoods. The hashtag #ArabLivesMatter has caught on, inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and among those embracing the hashtag is the country’s public security minister who faced stormy protests outside his home after seven shooting incidents rattled the Arab community in a single week. But although there’s growing public awareness of the problem, it won’t easily disappear. It’s been around for a long time, and will take some time to dissipate.
- Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.
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