/ 14 April 2022

South Africa should donate its spare Covid-19 vaccines

Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Administered At Colorado Fire Department
(Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

The South African national department of health has revealed that 92 000 doses of its Pfizer Covid 19 vaccine expired at the end of March. These doses were worth about R13-million. In the context of our scarcity of resources, R13-million is a lot of money. 

In terms of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in South Africa, the loss of 92 000 doses is a noticeable setback against government efforts to combat the pandemic. In future, the government could consider donating its Covid-19 vaccines before they expire.   

In South Africa, only roughly 40% of the population is fully vaccinated two years into the pandemic; this is primarily due to vaccine hesitancy than an inadequate supply of vaccines. Nonetheless, while vaccine hesitancy is a problem, in certain instances poor levels of vaccination is due to vaccine shortages, which are prohibitively expensive for some countries. 

This is particularly so for many SADC and African countries, which are generally poor. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar, vaccination remains extremely low, with about one in every 100 people vaccinated in the case of the DRC, and five in every 100 people in Madagascar as of March 2022. These figures are clearly alarming and indicate that the regional response to the Covid-19 pandemic in SADC has been poor. 

As a regional power, South Africa could do a lot to assist with access to vaccines in the region. With good planning, the South African government could have timeously donated the now-expired Pfizer vaccines to some SADC countries. 

Another option could have been to donate the Pfizer vaccines to the Covax facility that is managed by the World Health Organisation, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the Vaccine Alliance. The Covax facility was created with the purpose of increasing fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, especially for impoverished and developing countries. Many of these countries are concentrated in Africa in particular.

By giving the Pfizer vaccines to other SADC countries or the Covax facility, South Africa would have cultivated or enhanced its soft power. In international politics, soft power is the contrast to hard power (i.e. military instruments and economic sanctions) and is constituted of favourable perceptions that other states have of a state and, more importantly, shapes the preferences of states within the international arena. Perceptions of kindness and caring generate attraction and appeal and these are crucial aspects of soft power, an important instrument of foreign policy. South Africa depends largely on peaceful means to advance its foreign policy interests and the use of coercive instruments like the military appears to be a no-go area. Accordingly, the symbolism of kindness that would have resulted from the South African government giving vaccines to poor countries would have likely buttressed its soft power. 

In the meantime, many South Africans remain doubtful of taking the magical Covid-19 vaccine shots, as vaccination hesitancy continues to permeate in the country. As initiatives such as vaccination cash rewards and vaccine certificates introduced by the government continue to fail to encourage people to vaccinate en masse, it appears that vaccine hesitancy will be with us for a time to come. Therefore, it is likely that more and more vaccines would expire in the coming weeks and months. The government has been less transparent on the quantity of vaccines in storage within the country and the number of these vaccines approaching expiration. This makes it difficult to have a correct gauge of the Covid-19 vaccine doses South Africa has, but one thing is certain; South Africans are increasingly reluctant to get vaccinated. 

The government must undertake a thorough assessment of these factors; the quantity of Covid-19 vaccines in stock and the hesitancy on the part of many South Africans to accept vaccination. This would enable the government to determine and estimate the amount of existing vaccines that are likely to expire and donate these vaccines to SADC countries or the Covax facility before they are no longer usable. 

Equally, as the government embarks on the mission to administer Covid-19 vaccine booster doses to people who have already taken the initial shots, it is important to first ascertain the number of this category of people prepared to take the booster doses to prevent wastage. By donating some of its clearly over-stocked vaccines to SADC countries and/or the COVAX facility, South Africa would be able to turn the faltering vaccination campaign into a positive; creation or improvement of its soft power so crucial to the pursuit of foreign policy interests.