South Africa’s medicine sector has been on the knife-edge since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, from unpreparedness and PPE debacles to dealing with the second and probably a predicted third wave, to the arrival of a vaccine apparently ineffective against the new variant. Although the government has proposed an ambitious goal to vaccinate at least 67% of the population, some experts believe it won’t reach its target.

The controversy of the late acquisitions of a vaccine against Covid-19 was alarming for the country. When the Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize announced the temporary halt on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the first phase of the vaccination programme, South Africans were left doubtful as to the efficacy of vaccination.

“Unfortunately, these vaccines came through with the expiry date of April, which we only identified on arrival,” said Anban Pillay, deputy director-general of the health department. Between this statement, the ineffectiveness of AstraZeneca against the new coronavirus variant 501Y.V2 that was found in South Africa and the promises continuously being made by the government, people have been left apathetic and mistrusting.

Vaccine rollout begins

On Wednesday, South Africa kick-started its first phase of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout. The first group of healthcare workers lined-up to receive their shot. The department of Health described it as a success.

Studies have shown that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 100% effective in preventing Covid cases so severe that the patient ends up hospitalised or dead.

It does not require a deep freeze such as the Pfizer vaccine, for example, requires. It is one dose as opposed to two. All these factors make it a far better fit for South Africa.

Do South Africans trust the vaccine?

Some health-care workers express mixed emotions on the first roll-out of the vaccine.

“I don’t understand why the department of health is making us feel bad if we don’t take the vaccine,” says a Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital nurse from Pimville who asked to remain anonymous. She stated she has been listening to news and hearing lots of information from people about the virus, and she remains confused. “I don’t even know what to believe anymore. I think if we were prepared from last year, we would have known a lot about this vaccine. Now, as much as most of my family members, including me, are not considering taking the vaccine, I feel left out,” she says.

“I will see as times goes on with others. I don’t know if I will be taking it or not, only time will tell,” Wendy Hadebe (31), a nurse at Netcare Garden Centre. Hadebe hasn’t registered yet at the electronic vaccination data system (EVDS) that is opened for health-care workers but hopes to change her mind if she is fully convinced about it. “There is training awareness that has started at the hospital, I will probably be certain about the vaccine after that,” she says.

The health sector reported around 339 Covid-19 deaths among frontline health-care workers between March and November 2020, according to the Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, during a response briefing at parliamentary in January. “The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human resources in health since the first positive case in the republic has been enormous,” he says.

Spokesperson of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), Khaya Xaba stated “the hesitancy of the vaccination is mainly driven by the conspiracy theories that are circulating in the public domain, especially on social media”. He says health-care workers must reject information that is not verified but look on the bright side of things.  He says, “PPE’s are meant to save your life, the vaccine is also meant to save your life. Everything that can save your life must be used.

What could South Africa have done better?

An Ipsos online poll showed that only 53% of adults in South Africa would be willing to be vaccinated.

Israel is an excellent example of a successful plan and rollout:

  • Early negotiations with vaccine producers as soon as it was known that vaccines were needed and being developed.
  • A comprehensive education program for the entire general population.
  • A central information hotline, one for the public and one for the medical community, so that people have a place to enquire about such things as concerns and vaccine reactions.
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