Replete with jabs, South Africa now battling vaccine apathy

·4 min read

Under fire for a fumbled start in procuring Covid vaccines, South Africa now has plentiful jabs but faces a new challenge: tepid uptake.

Only three people stood in a vast Johannesburg sports hall converted into a vaccination centre, replacing the long queues seen winding their way around the complex a few weeks ago.

Parked in front of the building, minivan taxi driver Muzi, 32, eyed the entrance with a concerned look.

"I'm very scared of the vaccine," he said, explaining that he knew a woman who died after receiving a shot.

"She was perfectly fine before," he noted.

With thousands of new infections and hundreds of deaths each day, South Africa has the biggest coronavirus tally of any country on the continent -- more than 2.6 million cases in a population of 58 million.

The authorities have come in for hefty criticism for their vaccine strategy.

In February, at a crucial point in the pandemic, the country notably turned down one and a half million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine over doubts that it would protect against a then-dominant local variant of the virus.

Since then, the government has secured tens of millions of shots, and South Africa even became the first nation in Africa to produce Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer jabs.

The goal is to vaccinate 70 percent of the adult population, or 28 million people, by end of the year.

Yet the campaign is short of arms to inject, and the 70-percent target is worryingly far off.

Many vaccination sites stand empty, and some vaccinators have turned in desperation to social media in a bid to coax people to have a protective shot.

Awaiting her turn for the jab, Johannesburg resident Lori Bentley, 59, admitted she is one of few people in her family to believe in the shot's efficacy.

They think "it is too soon for the scientists to have developed the vaccine," she told AFP.

- Falling numbers -

South Africa is seeing "vaccine apathy or vaccine fatigue," Nomafrench Mbombo, a Western Cape provincial health minister, warned on Thursday.

Since mass public vaccination began in May, only 11 percent of the adult population has been fully immunised.

"We don't have a situation of vaccine constraint," the deputy director of the national health department, Nicholas Crisp, said last week.

"Now we need vaccine demand, because it has decreased due to loss of impetus in the programme."

In addition to government-run clinics and centres, private organisations including mosques, farms, mines, pharmacies and health insurance companies have opened up vaccination sites in towns and cities.

But the numbers of people coming forward to be immunised have dropped to under 200,000 a day in recent weeks, falling short of the target of 300,000.

The current vaccination regimen applies to people aged 35 and older, but will be open to anyone aged 18 or above from Friday.

- 'People don't trust government' -

A study released on Wednesday showed that while vaccine acceptancy stood at a reasonably high 72 percent among South African adults, uptake does not match the approval rates.

Among population categories, white adults and young people aged between 18 and 35 are the most reluctant to bare their arms.

The vaccine-hesitant cite "three primary concerns: side-effects, the effectiveness of the vaccine, and distrust of the vaccine and/or institutions," said the study, conducted in July by the Human Sciences Research Council and the University of Johannesburg.

Concerned at the slowdown in vaccinations, the government on Wednesday staged a media campaign to drive home the vaccine safety message, seeking to encourage more people to take the shot.

But one of the panelists, health journalist Pontsho Pilane, said low uptake was the symptom of a lack of trust between the government and the public.

"South Africans don't necessarily trust their government," she said.

Some people, she said, would question why they would have faith in a vaccine being offered by the same government that fails to provide them with basic services such as clean water.

The government also partly blames anti-vaxxers for the reluctance.

- Sex boycott? -

There are particular concerns over a low vaccine uptake among South African males, with women accounting for 60 percent of people vaccinated.

That prompted government last week to blast out text messages -- even to female-owned mobile phone numbers -- urging "all SA men to register" for vaccination.

But Lebogang Mashile, a poet and actress, offered a more practical solution.

She is calling for a "no-vax, no-sex" boycott to push men to get jabbed.

"For our own sake, women need to normalise making pumpum (love) access conditional on getting a vaccine and general covid regulations adherence," she wrote on Twitter.