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Tutu gets vaccine as South Africa launches large-scale rollout

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu was among South Africa’s first seniors to receive jabs on Monday as the country launched a massive immunisation drive for over-60s.

The 89-year-old anti-apartheid icon and his wife Leah emerged from Cape Town’s Brooklyn Chest Hospital in wheelchairs after getting their shots.

After much delay and on the cusp of a third wave of Covid-19 infections, South Africa finally rolled out the much anticipated campaign, which aims to vaccinate around five million people aged over 60 by the end of June.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize visited an elder care facility in the mining town of Krugersdorp, around 30 kilometres (18 miles) west of Johannesburg where he looked on as nurses administered jabs.

Despite being Africa’s worst virus-hit country, registering more than 1.6 million cases including 55,210 deaths, South Africa has vaccinated fewer than 480,000 people or just one percent of its population, mainly healthcare workers.

The drive started in February when South Africa became the first country in the world to administer inoculations by US pharma group Johnson & Johnson, but it has moved slowly.

The government, which has been widely criticised for the sluggish pace of the campaign, says it has ordered enough doses to vaccinate at least 45 million of the estimated 59 million population.

“Five million senior citizens are targeted to be completed by the end of June, provided that the supply of vaccines flow as anticipated,” Mkhize said.

He said the country expects to have received 4.5 million doses of Pfizer and two million J&J doses in the next six weeks, and that 16.5 million people should be vaccinated by October.

South Africa and India are leading a global campaign to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines so that any country can produce them, as poor lag behind in the vaccination race.

– ‘Vaccine apartheid’ –

Last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa deplored the shortfall.

“A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid,” he said.

South Africa earlier this year purchased AstraZeneca vaccines, but then sold them to other African countries over fears that they would be less effective.

Then, after it started inoculating healthcare workers with the J&J jabs, it had to pause for two weeks in mid-April to vet risks over blood clots that had been reported in the US.

The “phase two” rollout is being conducted at 87 vaccination sites using the Pfizer formula.

Mkhize said the vaccinations would start “fairly slowly” before being ramped up towards the end of the month “because we are starting off with a new vaccine we have never used before”.

At a vaccination centre in Johannesburg’s district of Germiston, retiree Asha Naran, 61, was relieved to finally get a shot.

“I’m very happy that we’re getting the vaccine and we’re moving forward… everywhere else they’re getting it. Our family in India already got it twice. So they’re quite ahead of us so we would like this thing to go faster,” she told AFP after receiving her jab.

After a brief lull, infections in South Africa climbed by as much as 46 percent between the last week of April and the first week of May.

Some experts blame the jump in cases on the delayed jab campaign.

“If we had the vaccine rolled out much earlier that would have helped,” said medical professor Nombulelo Magula, who serves on the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee.