On Tuesday I received a strange call from a friend. He had just had his Covid-19 jab at a makeshift outlet inside the Wendywood Sports Club & Recreation Centre in Johannesburg, which happens to be in my neighbourhood.
He knew that I’d already been vaccinated, but now he wanted to know if I knew of any friend, acquaintance, neighbour, or colleague who had not had the encounter with the needle. Medical personnel at the centre were desperate. They had a good supply of jabs, but people were not coming.
As it was already mid-afternoon, they were worried that they might have to destroy the jabs in their possession, for they were apparently not allowed to use that day’s supply the following day. This was an interesting revelation to me.
However, the fact that these people were so strict and conscientious about this gave me hope. It told me they were taking their jobs and the lives of the people they are supposed to vaccinate seriously.
Anyway, I told my friend I would ask around. After we hung up, I asked my wife to tell her friends who had not been jabbed to go to the local sports club.
After my wife had phoned some of her friends, she said that all of them were telling the same story: the vaccine centres in their neighbourhoods were empty of people.
Bizarre. But everything made sense when I read the news sites on Wednesday. A report published by the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg was cited in a number of stories, showing, among other things, that “vaccine acceptance declined among white adults from 56% to 52%, while it increased from 69% to 75% for African adults”.
After reading this, I got in contact with my friend, author Niq Mhlongo, who gave me a peek into what was happening in his corner of the world – Soweto.
He said some people were angry that they had to travel long distances to get to vaccination centres, while those centres that were accessible to the various communities in Soweto, which is a big area, were busy.
What I could deduce from all this was simply that the more privileged neighbourhoods had an oversupply of vaccination centres compared with their township counterparts.
Going back to the study by the Centre for Social Change, I am glad that it says religious reasons have played a minimal role in vaccine hesitancy, unlike in the US, where both religion and Trumpian conspiracy theories have led to thousands upon thousands of people refusing to get vaccinated.
We are a religious country, but I’m heartened that we don’t allow our religion to cloud our judgement in matters of life and death, on this earth at least.
My pedestrian take on an aspect of vaccine hesitancy is that the messaging has not been strong enough. Yes, we hear adverts on radio every now and then; we see billboards too.
But we could be more relentless. There was a time, not so many years ago, when everywhere you turned there was a message about HIV. It was in popular songs. It was on roadside billboards. It was sneaked into the storylines of our popular soapies. Priests and pastors spoke about it.
We were bombarded with these messages. They became part of our daily orange juice and cereal. I want to believe that this relentless messaging reduce new HIV infections. It changed people’s lifestyles.
As the vaccine roll-out hits the younger generation this week, I have my concerns.
Young people are, by nature, sceptical. Given the Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories that flood social media, which is the home of young people, I won’t be surprised if the uptake among this group is even lower than that of their parents and grandparents.
I hope our health authorities accompany the roll-out to young people with strong messaging – relentless and in your face.