Covid-19 vaccine: should agri workers be prioritised?

US agriculture lobbies for priority to covid-19 vaccine, but SA counterparts don't quite agree

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While the United States food industry and agricultural groups have started lobbying for their workers to get priority access to the approved covid-19 vaccine, South Africa’s agricultural leaders’ don’t quite agree.

Organisations in the US, including baking, brewing, retail and restaurant associations and agricultural groups such as the North American Meat Institute, tabled an obstinate letter to president Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump last month.

They are demanding to be prioritised for the covid-19 vaccine. The letter, which was published on the United Fresh Produce Association’s website, says, “Our members have been on the front lines of the response to the pandemic by continuing operations and ensuring Americans have access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food.”

Christo van der Rheede, the executive director at Agri SA. Photo: Supplied
Christo van der Rheede, the executive director at Agri SA. Photo: Supplied

Christo van der Rheede, the executive director at Agri SA, however tells Food For Mzansi that there should not be a priority list when it comes to a potential covid-19 vaccines as everyone is equally at risk.

“I think everyone must have a fair chance to access vaccines. This is not a luxury. It is a life and death matter. Everyone must be prioritised, especially people with comorbidities and certainly health workers.

“They are frontline workers and then obviously all of the other people that need to be assisted. But I don’t think one should talk about prioritisation when it comes to vaccines,” he says.

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Van der Rheede describes the future covid-19 vaccine as a national emergency that needs to reach every single citizen who needed it.

“It is not something you can prioritise. It is a national emergency and covid-19 is a disease that can be deadly to anyone. The last thing we want right now is for people to start fighting about who must come first in the line when it comes to vaccines. We all know that agricultural workers are important, but, I think, let us share the burden equally. You know, all people are affected in one way or another.”

Theo Venter, a political and policy specialist and lecturer at the North West University’s Business School. Photo: NWU
Theo Venter, a political and policy specialist and lecturer at the North West University’s Business School. Photo: NWU

Meanwhile Theo Venter, a political and policy specialist at North West University’s Business School, argues that agricultural workers should be prioritised. However, he believes certain factors should be evaluated to determine the pecking order.

“If you look at the metrics in terms of age and vulnerability, I think agricultural workers, being essential workers, should definitely be very high up on the priority list, also for South Africa. We know that agriculture is usually important.

“But I wouldn’t add the agricultural workers as a group. I would prioritise them in terms of age and vulnerability.”Venter adds, “We now know about this virus to understand that in the Western Cape there is huge vulnerability. We know in KwaZulu-Natal there is a huge vulnerability, so I would look very specifically at the focus in agriculture rather than agriculture and the sector.”

“Everyone must have a fair chance to access THE COVID-19 vaccine. This is not a luxury. It is a life and death matter.” – CHRISTO VAN DER RHEEDE, AGRI SA

Meanwhile countries like the US and the United Kingdom are already speeding ahead with approval of a covid-19 vaccine. Pfizer and BioNTech received authorisation to market and distribute their vaccine in the UK on 2 December 2020.

Next steps for covid-19 vaccine 

The temporary approval for emergency use, which comes from the country’s regulatory body, means the UK will probably start rolling out the first of its 40 million doses in the next few days.

The UK government says it will initially prioritise elderly people in long-term care homes and healthcare workers, in line with recommendations by its independent joint committee for vaccination and immunisation.

This will not be South Africa’s plan, says Barry Schoub, chairperson of the ministerial advisory committee on coronavirus vaccines, according to media reports.

He indicates that this is largely because South Africa does not have the expendable income to buy huge numbers of vaccine candidates. It will take a more considered approach instead, he says.

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