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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

Digital Vibes scandal allowed anti-vaxx lobby to poison South Africans

The lack of a thorough and effective government-led communication campaign left a vacuum.

Taxpayer money siphoned off in the Digital Vibes scandal could have indirectly led to avoidable deaths in the Covid pandemic.

As the government has tightened the screws on those behind the R150 million Digital Vibes Covid communications scandal – with nine civil servants and another nine nongovernment individuals implicated – a leading communications expert said money splurged on the failed project deprived South Africans of life-saving information.

Reacting to the placing on precautionary suspension of certain government officials, Chris Vick, chair of nonprofit CovidComms – aimed at building understanding of Covid – said those implicated had “a lot to answer for, not just for stealing money, but for pocketing cash that was meant to have been spent on saving lives”.

Said Vick: “The reality is that money, which should have been used on public health education, was blown on shopping trips and luxury goods.

“We can only imagine how many lives could have been saved if the department of health had a robust public education campaign in place from day one.

“Public education is crucial in a pandemic. The people at Digital Vibes and their collaborators in the department deprived the people of South Africa of life-saving information about how to avoid being infected by Covid and how to avoid infecting others. It’s disgusting.”

The lack of a thorough and effective government-led communication campaign left a vacuum which allowed the anti-vaxx lobby to poison the minds of South Africans to such an extent that the vaccination roll-out is stalling.

While conceding the scandal was a setback to the health department’s reputation, its spokesperson Foster Mohale said Digital Vibes was not the sole communications machinery government relied on for Covid education.

“GCIS [Government Communications and Information System] has been leading and doing a great job, with other private sector entities like B4SA and nongovernmental organisations working side-by-side with government, using their own resources.

“Media houses have dedicated a lot of free airtime and space to government – part of their contribution in the fight against the pandemic,” said Mohale.

Addressing a media briefing, following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s release of the much-awaited Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report into Digital Vibes, which led to the resignation of Dr Zweli Mkhize as minister, Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, said there were serious allegations against several senior officials, which included then acting director-general Dr Anban Pillay.

While an investigation was underway, internal disciplinary measures would soon be instituted against those found guilty, with the National Prosecuting Authority laying criminal charges against everyone involved in the Digital Vibes saga.

Lauding those who blew the lid off the dodgy tender, Phaahla said: “This report shows that, indeed, whistleblowing is one of the effective mechanisms in the fight against fraud and corrupt activities. The stand taken by an individual and, subsequently, by witnesses, has brought us to where we are today.

“We fully understand the public concerns and interest in this matter because it involves allegations of misappropriation of public funds in the middle of the fight against the Covid pandemic, which has so far cost the country substantial unbudgeted funds, as well as people’s lives and livelihoods.

“We are committed to study the report’s findings and recommendations fully, acting on the outcomes of the formal disciplinary processes, without fear, favour and prejudice.

“We are also committed to clean governance and despite how uncomfortable the report may appear, it will help us tighten controls and ethical practice.

“We take seriously evidence gathered by the SIU and have noted the view that there may be scope for criminal charges, though we are also mindful that further investigation needs to unfold before persons are declared guilty by our courts. This is part of the rule of law.”

Phaahla said: “We would like to tender our unreserved apology to all South Africans for this unfortunate saga – assuring the public that we are going to thoroughly and decisively act to ensure nothing is swept under the carpet.

“We acknowledge the impact of this on the image of the department and the public health system.”