Cape Town - Initially, it was understood that the only reason South Africa was struggling to vaccinate its population was due to a lack of vaccines. Over the past month, the vaccine roll-out drive has improved immensely, owing to good collaboration between government and various business sectors in administering vaccinations.
The government has also managed to acquire more vaccines, like the 5.8 million doses recently received from Pfizer USA, and improved its vaccine management and administration.
In his first address, new Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla also told the nation that 20 million new vaccine deliveries would be made over August.
In all, the government's assumption has been that more vaccines will lead to more vaccinations – this, however, is proving to be inaccurate.
The huge fixation on vaccine acquisition has underplayed the possibility that many South Africans do not want to take vaccines.
South Africa has not learnt from the experiences of other African countries, like Tanzania, where vaccine denialism and scepticism, driven by a myriad factors, including African beliefs about the evils of Western medication and religious doctrine, has remained a constant barrier to the government’s vaccination plan.
Seemingly, growing vaccine scepticism has caught the government off guard – the problem is far worse than initially understood.
In retrospect, government’s blunder in February 2021, to purchase 1.8 million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses that later were found to provide a disappointing level of immunity for the Covid-19 variant in South Africa, was a pivotal moment in developing a narrative that the government's vaccine campaign was a disaster.
Matters were made worse in March, when the country decided to ban J&J vaccines as a precautionary measure following the American Food and Drug Administration’s decision to pause using the jab while blood clot cases were being examined in patients who had taken the shot.
The government’s decision came after 289 000 doses of the vaccine had already been administered to health-care workers, casting tremendous doubt on the government's ability to ensure that vaccines were foolproof and safe before use.
Concerningly, no effective attempts are being made to ease fears over vaccine safety and quell vaccine hesitancy. Instead, the government still chooses to over communicate its “aspirational” plans to vaccinate the population rather than reassuring South Africans of the safety and efficiency of vaccines in ways that are easily understandable.
Until the government realises that vaccine scarcity is a non-issue for most South Africans, and vaccine safety is much more important to the populace, vaccine scepticism will continue to proliferate.
In recent times, an increasing number of vaccine scepticism incidences have been noted.
In Durban, it was reported by the IOL on August 1 that families who had lost their loved ones shortly after they took the vaccine were adamant that the injection had resulted in their deaths – a preposition which has been heavily refuted by medical experts, who claimed that these individuals already had underlying conditions. Government has failed to respond decisively to the matter.
In another incident, during the vaccination drive of the education sector, many teachers came out strongly objecting to being vaccinated over fears around the safety of vaccines, raising important questions about freedom of medical choice.
In response, the Department of Basic Education pressed for legal action against teachers who did not want to vaccinate – a move that is ill-timed and in contradiction of President Ramaphosa’s statements that no one would be forced to get vaccinated as it was more of a “patriotic duty” than legal obligation.
In no way does such mixed messaging from the government contribute to vaccine acceptance in South Africa.
Government has also ostracised the religious community through its various lockdowns. While many sectors have “opened up”, the religious community has remained fairly “closed off” in what religious leaders have articulated as stringent regulations against faith lovers.
Of-course, this has also been taken to mean that the government and all its Covid-19 initiatives, including vaccinations, are to be seen with a level of mischief.
The government must attend to the matter. The religious sector is predominant in South Africa, with vast community level access – it should be treated as an ally of the government in its vaccine drive.
It comes as no surprise then, that South Africa is witnessing a growing trend of people objecting to taking vaccines. In a recent survey conducted by Afrobarometer, it was concluded that seven in 10 South Africans have little or no trust in the government’s ability to ensure that Covid-19 vaccines are safe, and a majority of South African’s stated that they would not get vaccinated.
Additionally, more than half believed that prayer was more effective than the vaccine.
Government must redesign its vaccine drive to meet emerging issues. This may require an organised and continuous clampdown of fake news around vaccines, which has been easily circulating around social media like wildfire.
There is a need for the development of effective vaccine educational content with behavioural change in mind and deeper considerations of incentivising vaccinations, such like we have seen in other parts of the world.
Maposa is a political-economist who holds a Masters in International Relations from UCT. He writes in his own capacity.