Holding elections will put lives at risk, says health DG

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Holding elections will put lives at risk, says health DG

Dr Sandile Buthelezi says by the proposed election date, at current rates, SA will have vaccinated only 16 million

Department of health director-general Sandile Buthelezi. File photo.
Department of health director-general Sandile Buthelezi. File photo.
Image: Supplied

SA may only reach Covid-19 population immunity in February 2022, and forging ahead with elections later this year will endanger lives. 

This is according to health department director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi on Thursday, speaking at justice Dikgang Moseneke’s inquiry.

The department has become the latest entity to pour cold water on the feasibility of holding free and fair elections under Covid-19 conditions. 

Buthelezi said the virus – which has so far claimed the lives of more than 60,000 South Africans – was vicious and the Delta variant, which has spread to most of SA’s provinces, made matters worse because it had since been discovered that reinfection was possible.

Though he was not at liberty to say if authorities should forge ahead with elections or not, Buthelezi said if the vote took place, many would be at risk.

“The country is experiencing high number of Covid-19 cases with very high community transmission rates. Holding of elections could put members of the public at risk of contracting Covid-19 during various activities, such as physical voter registration, the voting process itself, where large numbers gather at polling stations and queue to complete their ballot, [and] large political gatherings, especially in venues that are difficult to manage or limit. And the rollout of the vaccine programme may not have reached sufficient people to have achieve population protections,” said Buthelezi. 

He said by the proposed election date of October 27, at current rates, the country would have vaccinated only 16 million – while the figure needed to achieve immunity was estimated at 40 million.

It’s something that is very difficult to predict because we’re dealing different variants ... But we do not think we will be starting a fourth wave at that particular time.
Health department director-general Dr Sandile Buthelezi

The DG said he was confident they would achieve this target if they diversified their vaccination supply and there were no further disruptions.

Asked on how the department planned to achieve that, Buthelezi said they sought to vaccinate 200,000 people a day, which would be a million a week. They were also looking at roping in senior medical students to assist with the rollout on weekends, which would assist the country in achieving the February target for population immunity.

Moseneke put it to Buthelezi that, based on his submission, the country was likely to still be under level 4 of the lockdown regulations.

Buthelezi said indeed that could be the case, “probably not as severe as we are right now, but there will be some level of restrictions by that time definitely, if we are looking or learning from what has been happening in the past two waves”.

Some stakeholders have told the inquiry that election day was a culmination of the work that began months before the day. Buthelezi echoed similar sentiments. 

Asked to give the best prognosis on what the situation would be mid-October, Buthelezi said SA was likely to be getting out of the third wave.   

“It’s something that is very difficult to predict because we’re dealing different variants ... But we do not think we will be starting a fourth wave at that particular time.” 

This view contradicted a prognosis provided by health experts who told the inquiry SA could be well into the fourth wave on election day.  

Moseneke expressed his gratitude to Buthelezi. 

“This is helpful, we are trying to do no harm on one side, but we’re all trying to protect our democratic gains,” he said.

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