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Prioritise agriculture in COVID-19 vaccine rollout

30 June 2021 Agility Agri
Dr Kobus Laubscher, Independent Consultant to Agility Agri

Dr Kobus Laubscher, Independent Consultant to Agility Agri

South Africa can’t afford to wait

Farmers and farmworkers, in their capacity as essential contributors to the South African economy and the wellbeing of the country’s citizens, should be prioritised when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine. If this doesn’t happen, it may jeopardise the contribution agriculture is making in terms of job creation, the continued ensuring of food security and earning foreign exchange.

This is the sentiment of agricultural economist Dr Kobus Laubscher, an independent consultant to Agility Agri.

During last year’s hard COVID-19 lockdown the sector played a major role in softening the economic blow of the pandemic in South Africa, but the industry still faces enormous challenges in the rebuilding of the post-COVID economy.

Bumper crops are expected in the coming harvest season, which will lead to a predicted growth of 7.5% in the industry. This will not only ensure domestic food security and sustained employment in the sector, but also a growth in produce exports despite higher crude oil prices, a shortage of reefers (refrigerated containers) and an export unfriendly rand/dollar exchange rate.

“But it is vital that the wellbeing of both farmers and their employees, as well as others in the food supply chain, be prioritised,” says Laubscher.

South Africa is reeling under the third wave of COVID-19 infections and the turning point in the latest outbreak is uncertain. The national government, which manages the vaccination rollout, has prioritised healthcare workers and those over the age of 60, and more recently educational staff, to be vaccinated. Critical essential workers, such as those in the agricultural industry, have, however, been overlooked.

“The country’s population stands at 60 million people, and it is agriculture’s duty to ensure that enough food is produced to feed those people. The sector achieved this with sterling success last year and it will do so again this year regardless of the third wave,” says Laubscher.

“However, these key role players in ensuring food security live mainly in rural areas where they are most vulnerable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and not near specialist treatment facilities. Prevention will always be better than cure. Proper communication about the virus is necessary and farmers must be assertive in enforcing basic preventative measures.

“But despite these routine preventative measures, it is vital that government also prioritises the industry in terms of the national vaccination programme,” asserts Laubscher.

“Due attention must also be paid to the limited infrastructure in rural areas that might constrain the efficient roll-out of the vaccination drive and the scarcity of health resources in sparsely populated rural areas should not prevent the agricultural workforce from accessing the health and wellness services needed for optimal productivity.”

This premise of accessible healthcare, irrespective of geographical location, has been a cornerstone of the Agility Agri solution since inception and a key focus is placed on ensuring ease of benefit access to these members. As example, Health Squared Medical Scheme, has an extensive provider network that spans as many regions as possible to ensure best possible access.

“Mobile nurse access further supplements our provider network and can be quickly deployed where needed, even in the most remote settings. Our longstanding partnership with, for example, Netcare 911 also enables us to provide immediate emergency medical transport no matter where our members are. Telephonic health, legal and financial advice is also a toll-free phone call away, with the addition of Trauma Care further supporting customers in rural areas. Flexible solutions such as mobile clinics will be invaluable tools for the efficient rollout of vaccines in rural areas,” says Dr Jacques Snyman, medical advisor to Health Squared Medical Scheme.

Dr Snyman also stresses the importance of the employer making provision to ensure the wellness of everyone involved in the organisation, as this is essential for collective ongoing productivity of farmers and farm workers.

“We should ask ourselves what more we can do at farm level to not only make the world more liveable in the present pandemic, but also to safeguard the people we rely on in the agricultural industry from future risks,” says Dr Snyman.

“We fully understand that incomes vary immensely, particularly in South Africa, which is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Therefore, we offer benefits that are accessible and affordable to all employees across all income groups. In this manner you are able to safeguard the wellbeing of both your workforce and a sustainable business by preserving dignity while minimising human and financial risks,” says Dr Snyman.

According to Dr Laubscher, the impact of the pandemic on rural agricultural healthcare is likely to play out indefinitely.

“A successful vaccination programme may be the beginning of the recovery, but progress will most likely be slow. Efficient and affordable healthcare will only become more important.

“Government can’t provide that care – there’s simply no money left, but I doubt that the sector will wait for government to take the lead. The sector has always demonstrated the willingness and the ability to do what is required.

“In the meantime, prioritising agriculture in the vaccination programme can’t be postponed. South Africa cannot afford to wait,” concludes Dr Laubscher.

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