Big shift in South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine plan

After months of dealmaking and organising to bring Covid-19 vaccines into South Africa, the Department of Health is now shifting focus to increasing vaccine demand.

In a presentation to parliament on Tuesday (24 August), the department said that this includes making it significantly easier for South Africans to get a vaccine – such as places where they shop or even at home.

Under the current vaccine system, South Africans are expected to register and travel to one of the designated public or private vaccination sites spread out across the country. The department said that it will now look at offering transportation to these sites to offer better access to those in underprivileged areas.

It is also investigating the possibility of introducing home vaccinations and ‘pop-up’ sites in rural areas where travel is less of an option and at busy commercial areas such as shopping centres.

The government also hopes for assistance from the religious sector, with the possibility of churches offering vaccines on a Sunday. Mosques, synagogues and other places of worship would also offer a ‘familiar environment’ where people feel comfortable receiving a vaccine.

Hearts and minds 

The government plans to lean heavily on social media to promote vaccination and is investigating the employment of ambassadors and influencers to encourage people to get vaccinated online.

The department said that this includes identifying ‘apolitical’ vaccine champions relevant to the target group and have wide-reaching influence, such as celebrities and traditional leaders.

Other initiatives which are being considered include:

  • The use of community WhatsApp groups to communicate correct information and counter misinformation and disinformation.
  • Working with local comedians to create fun videos on platforms like TikTok that can be shared on social media.
  • Radio slots to boost confidence in vaccination, explaining all the key steps in the vaccination journey.
  • Ongoing “human” stories by individuals representing the target group to show authentic stories of registration and vaccination on radio, local newspapers, and all social media platforms.
  • Using social media to get the correct information into young people’s hands so that they do not discourage the elderly from vaccinating through sharing misinformation they consume on social media.
  • Using teachers to get the right information into young people’s hands to correct misinformation from social media and other sources at home.
  • Visible signage of the vaccine roll-out on large key billboards in high transit areas.
  • Conspicuous telescopic and large banners at malls, places of worship, taxi ranks, retail stores, schools.

Demand problem

On Tuesday (24 August), South Africa reported 10,346 new cases of Covid-19, taking the total reported to 2,708,951.

Deaths have reached 79,953 (+369), while recoveries have climbed to 2,464,609, leaving the country with a balance of 164,389 active cases. The total number of vaccines administered is 11,076,106 (+285,605).

A July survey found that about 54% of nationals said they are unlikely to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

South Africa has a particular problem with men not wanting to be vaccinated, said Nicholas Crisp, deputy director-general in the department of health.

“This is not good,” Crisp said. “It means that men are going to end up very sick and in hospital, and we don’t want that to happen just before Christmas.”

Health minister Dr Joe Phaahla warned that there is still a very long road ahead as the number of new infections continues to spike.

The ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 is now discussing the possibility of mandatory Covid-19 vaccines for specific groups of people, the Sunday Times reported.

Scientists and health activists told the paper that compulsory vaccination for healthcare workers and other professions who spend time indoors with other people might be necessary.

This would allow the country to reopen and operate in a way as close to possible as the pre-Covid-19 era, said Wits University vaccinology expert professor Shabir Madhi.

“In these settings, if people choose not to be vaccinated, they should be compelled to undergo testing every three or four days at their own expense,” he said.

While Covid-19 vaccines don’t offer full protection against Covid-19, Madhi said that the vaccines would be a lot more impactful at a population level if more people were vaccinated.

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Big shift in South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine plan