South Africa urgently needs programmes to address vaccine hesitancy and dispel myths around the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, such as the fear that they will make you seriously ill, disabled or even turn you into a zombie.
The lack of vaccine education and awareness was highlighted in a panel discussion that ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, South Africa’s largest youth network reaching 4,500 young people, conducted recently to find out what the challenges were ahead of the official start of South Africa’s Covid vaccine rollout. In mid-April the online registration of people over 60 years for the Covid vaccine programme due to start mid-May, was opened up.
The young community activists from the health vertical within Activate spoke about the misinformation in their communities – as well as their own fears around the Covid vaccines. The key message was that a huge amount of education needs to be done at community level, nationwide, to provide factual information in a format that is easy to understand, in the key indigenous languages, and in media channels or programmes that actually reach the various communities.
There also needs to be dialogue, so people can address their fears and ask questions of qualified public health representatives. Given the success, lauded globally, of South Africa’s HIV/Aids and TB treatment programmes; as well as the effective early-childhood vaccination programmes, it should not be hard to counter Covid myths and misconceptions around the vaccine, but it needs to begin as a matter of urgency.
There is a stigma and fear that comes with being vaccinated, says Mercy Dube, one of the young activators who attended the Activate online panel discussion. “The credibility of information on the internet has to be addressed. People are being misinformed.”
Nkosikhona Mpungose says much of the credible vaccine information out there is also not easy for people to understand, which is why myths around the Covid vaccine are spreading through communities. “One story that is causing a lot of fear is that your heart will beat very fast until you have a heart attack and die; or that you will faint when you have the vaccine, so you should only get vaccinated at home, not in public,” he explains.
Blessing Sibande, the moderator of the panel discussion, mentioned that even zombies trended on social media recently as South Africans spoke out against having the vaccine because they feared it would turn them into the living dead. “As young people we need to remain united and share credible information. People don’t trust information on vaccines, so we need to at all times deal with these fears in our communities.”
This is the crux of the matter, says Phathuxolo Prince Ndzimande, who points to the issue of there being more fake news circulating on the Covid vaccine, than credible information. “So, a lot of people have said they will not be vaccinated because of the fake news they have seen. And we haven’t seen anyone being prosecuted for sharing fake vaccination news, which is why there is a problem. We need to work harder at getting the correct information out into communities, where fake news spreads faster than Government information.”
However, Aubrey Moshia points out that this is not the first time South Africa has delt with a major health crisis. “We have done stunning work in South Africa in terms of HIV/Aids and TB. We have systems in place that could be used to channel information. We have community health workers embedded in our communities, who know our language and know our communities. They would be in a position to educate people on the ground about vaccines. This is not the first time either, that we are being vaccinated. Most of us have been receiving vaccines from a young age.”
Moshia continues: “We need to address what is a vaccine, how it is administered, and how it will be improved on over time. We already give out treatments for TB and HIV/Aids that are trusted. We have systems in place that we must use.”
Ndzimande agrees: “When we had HIV/Aids, we had mass mobilisation for prevention and treatment. Everyone understands what HIV is. We need to do the same with Covid and the vaccines.” But he urges Government to fast track information programmes. “We need to understand the vaccine itself before we get vaccinated. I need to know what are the benefits and what are the disadvantages of me vaccinating for Covid. In the long run, what will happen? Yes, I may survive Covid, but what else will happen to me? Will there be side-effects? And if we vaccinate, must we stay away from other medicines for a period, like traditional medicines or other Western medicines? All we want is credible information that is accessible to all.”
Despite the discussion around dispelling myths and fears, Dube is still doubtful about having the Covid Vaccine: “I don’t think I want to take the vaccine. With all the information circulating and what we have seen to date. I want to see more on the side effects. There is too much confusion around the whole issue.”
Mpungose remains hesitant too. He signed up for one of the vaccine trials in KZN and was standing in line waiting to be vaccinated, when the nurse in front of him who had just received her Covid vaccine shot, fainted. There was no information as to why she fainted or whether she had recovered fully, so he and his friends walked away and changed their plans.
All participants in the vaccine panel discussion agreed that it was important for vaccine literacy to be in all main official languages to reach everyone. Activate’s vaccine literacy programme facilitator, Patrick Mcobothi, advocates that Government set up war rooms at national, provincial, and regional level and include participation from community organisations, not only politicians, to assist with vaccine literacy and awareness as the vaccination programmes are rolled out.
Sibande concludes that Government needs to be at the forefront of any information campaign. “We need to talk with one voice and one message. Vaccine literacy campaigns should include testimonies from people who have been vaccinated that are doing fine and doing well. We need to see people who have survived being vaccinated, who are well. We need to address those myths that are making people fearful, like dying from the vaccine or becoming zombies. We must act now.”