By August 10, 476 497 vaccinations had been administered in the Free State. This means about 16 Covid-19 jabs have been administered for every 100 people in the province, although some people would have received two. South Africa is aiming to vaccinate around 67% of the country’s adult population.
So far, only 22 078 vaccinations have been administered in the province’s rural districts. This works out to about one jab per 100 people. Based on Stats SA estimates, we calculate that there are around 2 million people living in the province’s rural areas.
Unions, some residents and opposition parties say the slow pace is due to poor planning, since many rural communities cannot afford transport to Covid-19 vaccination sites.
According to Free State Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA chairperson Thibogang Thole, many low-income and senior citizens in rural areas do not have transport to go to vaccination sites. Thole says the provincial department of health has failed to include people in rural areas and small towns in its planning.
“We still have the senior citizens living in villages, farms and small towns, who are not yet vaccinated because they do not have capacity to reach vaccination sites. These people do not have resourced families or friends that will transport them to vaccination sites for free, which means that they have to spend the little money that they have on transport so that they can [get] vaccinated,” he said.
Both the EFF and the DA in the province called on the provincial health department to address the transport challenges rural communities face in the vaccination process.
Pensioner Morwa Mohlomi (64), from the Tiger River Trust, a rural village in Thaba Nchu, east of Bloemfontein, tells Spotlight that getting vaccinated came with many challenges.
Tiger River Trust is one of the 36 rural villages near Thaba Nchu. The town has a population of 701 118, with only one designated vaccination site at the Dr JS Moroka District Hospital.
Mohlomi is among the many older people in the Free State rural areas who had to travel long distances and spend money to get to a site for their Covid-19 jab.
Although her closest vaccination site was at the Moroka hospital, she was notified to go to the Botshabelo District Hospital, which is over 100km away from her home. She says that, for her to get the two vaccine doses, she had to spend R300 on transportation alone, with her second dose received on August 3.
“I heard about vaccination on the radio station and right there I knew that I had to vaccinate. I know as a person over 60 years I am a high-risk, so it is important for me and other pensioners to get vaccinated,” Mohlomi says. “When I received a message on my phone that I must go to Botshabelo, I knew that it was impossible for us to get vaccinated in Botshabelo because it is too far [and] would be very expensive.
She says that, after getting the confirmation message, she went to the Moroka Hospital which is much closer to her village. “I showed them my message and told them Botshabelo was too far for me. They agreed to help me at Moroka hospital and said I could come back for my second dose on August 3.”
Mohlomi says she is happy to be vaccinated. “But I am also very hurt that I spent so much money on transport only. This is money that I could have used to buy some food for my house and, because it costs so much money to go to vaccination sites, I know that there are some of the community members in my village that did not get vaccinated because of lack of money.”
Vaccination is a two-way street
“The non-provision of transportation by government in rural areas is slowing down the vaccination process and it opens up room for people to change their minds about vaccination. This also puts pressure on us, nurses, because it means we will be unable to reach herd immunity at the set deadline,” Thole said.
“Another burning issue in other parts of the Free State, especially Bultfontein, Lejweleputswa, when it comes to vaccination, is that there is a heavy demand and a short supply of the vaccine,” he said.
The union claims people who travel long distances, and spend the associated money on it, from places like Bultfontein to Welkom, end up being sent home without vaccination as they are cut off from the long queues because vaccines are finished for the day. They are told that they should come back the next day.
But Free State department of health spokesperson Mondli Mvambi says the vaccines cannot wait for the people. “Vaccines are very sensitive and have to be in a place with adequate temperature. It is not like bread where it is just placed there in the sun waiting for people to arrive,” he said.
Mvambi says the government is doing everything in its power to ensure that vaccinations are accessible to people.
“The reality of the matter is that we cannot fetch every person from their homes. Farm areas are scattered and [it] will be impossible for us to go to each household. Also, people must understand that vaccine is a two-way street. People should make an effort to ensure that they get vaccinated.”
Mvambi says the department has placed vaccination sites centrally for all the people in the area to access.
“Government is doing all it can to make the vaccination accessible to all the citizens of the Free State by doing outreach programmes which include pop-up vaccination sites in those communities. We work hand-in-hand with different nonprofit organisations.”
Responding to claims of vaccine demand outstripping supply in some rural areas, Mvambi says, “The point is we cannot [risk having] wastage of vaccines. It is a risk to have an oversupply of vaccines in small towns because sometimes there are many people and sometimes not. We have to be very cautious. So, with Bultfontein residents, I will have to verify and address the matter with district officials to see how best this matter can be tackled without running the risk of wasting vaccines.”
The SA Red Cross Society in the Free State is one of the organisations that are working with the provincial health department to provide vaccinations. Provincial manager of the society, Claudia Mangwegape, said the organisation had pop-up vaccination sites in the rural areas around the province, where people could just walk in to be vaccinated without having registered.
“What we do is that we drive around the different villages and [with loudhailers call] on older citizens who have no access to transport. We have a minibus taxi that we use to collect them from their homes, go to the vaccination site and back to their homes. This is a strategy that is currently working especially in the villages of Thaba Nchu.
“This week we are doing the same thing in Fezile Dabi district at the different farms around Viljoenskroon and Parys. We are doing this as an organisation because we know that the farm communities are not able to access the vaccination sites,” she said.
The organisation has so far done 45 pop-up vaccination sites in villages including Thaba Nchu, Steynsrus, Koppies, Viljoenskroon and surrounding farms. Mangwegape says they have vaccinated about 100 people a day at these sites since the beginning of July.
*This article was produced by Spotlight – health journalism in the public interest