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Government losing battle to get people vaccinated

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OPINION: Even though Covid-19 vaccination coverage is progressively expanding across the country, the number of vaccinated people remains way below government’s 70% target, writes Keabetswe Kganticoe.

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By Keabetswe Kganticoe

LIKE the rest of the world, South Africa continues to grapple with Covid-19 and how to adequately respond to the pandemic.

Although the rates of hospitalisations and deaths during the fifth wave have been much lower compared to previous waves, the government continues to encourage citizens to get vaccinated to mitigate the effects of future waves.

For some time now, the question on the minds of many has been “to vaccinate or not to vaccinate?”

Even though Covid-19 vaccination coverage is progressively expanding across the country, the number of vaccinated people remains way below government’s target (70%) by this period.

Of South Africa’s population of about 60 million people, only 31% (just below 19 million) are fully vaccinated, whereas only 21% of people have taken the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and have not gone back for the second dose.

This is even after the government lowered the vaccination age to 12 years. At this rate, South Africa will only reach its goal of vaccinating 70% of its population by July 2027, according to data from Covidvax.live.

To a certain extent, it can be said that some South Africans do not feel the need to get vaccinated against Covid-19 due to a number of factors: refusal to consider Covid-19 as a threat, concerns about the vaccine’s adverse effects, and a lack of faith in vaccines and the organisations that support them, as well as an inclination to ride on the constitutional right to choose whether to vaccinate or not.

The enthusiasm of South Africans to get vaccinated also waned after the government’s AstraZeneca vaccine debacle. The government found that the AstraZeneca vaccine it had acquired was not only inefficient against the Delta variant, which was prominent in South Africa at the time, but that it was about to expire.

The AstraZeneca debacle, coupled with growing global resistance and misinformation against vaccines, increased the scepticism among some South Africans around Covid-19 vaccines in general.

The scepticism ranged from conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns on the contents of the vaccines and their side-effects. Some conspiracy theorists even suggested that the government was prioritising vaccines from the United States and Europe because it had been captured by big pharmaceutical interests and that the vaccination drive was nothing more than a profiteering scheme driven by these interests.

Of course, this posture towards vaccines has not been unique to South Africa. Across the world, vaccine hesitancy has been identified as one of the major risks in Covid-19 management efforts.

South Africa has seen the pattern of citizens moving from hesitating to get vaccinated to having an apathetic stance on vaccination.

Vaccine hesitancy is defined as a reluctance in accepting or refusing to get vaccinated, whereas vaccine apathy is the disinterest or lack of enthusiasm around vaccination.

It seems citizens have gone from having a fear around vaccination to now being completely apathetic, prompting the government to repeatedly remind the public that ‘the pandemic is not over’.

There are several possible reasons that could have influenced vaccine apathy in the country. The government’s messaging and leadership around Covid-19 has been lacklustre and largely inconsistent.

This lacklustre stance became prominent after the emergence of the Omicron variant in November 2021. After the peak of the fourth wave in December and the minimal surge in hospitalisations and deaths that were recorded, members of the public and operators in the hospitality sector launched an online petition addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa, which called for the lifting of the midnight to 4am curfew.

The call from the public resulted in the lifting of the curfew and the government’s decision to not impose any harsher restrictions. However, during this period, many countries across the globe were tightening restrictions to battle a surge in infections. Nonetheless, there has been constant criticism from public health experts on the lack of scientific basis of some of the government’s regulations, such as outdoor gatherings and mask mandates.

The repealing of the remaining Covid-19 regulations by government, relating to the wearing of face masks indoors, restrictions on gatherings and travellers into South Africa not being required to produce vaccination certificates will only add to the false notion that Covid-19 is over and further increase the complacency levels amongst the citizens.

The government finds itself at sixes and sevens on how to overcome vaccine apathy that not only has cost the state money but also makes South Africa vulnerable to future Covid-19 variants.

The Department of Health has stated that the country’s vaccination supply is sufficient for the full adult demographic. According to the statistics from sacoronavirus.co.za, government’s Covid-19 information portal, only 18% of South Africans took the Pfizer booster shot, and only 13% took the Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Covid-19 vaccine booster shot.

The South African government has not helped itself by remaining on the fence when it comes to vaccine mandates.

It has essentially taken a very cautious stance amid threats of litigation. It seems that even the promulgation of the National Health Act Regulations, which is aimed at managing Covid-19 following the expiry of the National State of Disaster in April, has hit a snag.

For some, this signals the government’s own tacit concession that the virus is not as much of a threat as it once was. After all, life has somewhat returned to pre-Covid-19 normalcy.

With the country’s official exit from the fifth wave of infections with less infections, hospitalisations and deaths in relation to previous waves, and now with the scrapping of the last remaining restrictions, the government will have a much harder task of convincing people that vaccination is the answer to ensuring that South Africa is not severely impacted by future waves, which may setback the country’s economic recovery. What is certain is that South Africans are beyond being persuaded to get vaccinated for Covid-19 by way of campaigns.

If the government wants to rescue its vaccination drive, it has to adopt a firm stance on whether it wants its citizens to get vaccinated or not.

* Kganticoe is a Public Policy Stakeholder Relations Officer at Frontline Africa Advisory.

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