Comments like Mogoeng Mogoeng's are dangerous, with the potential to derail the success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, writes Kayla Arnold.
As the UK took its first steps last week in what stands to be the biggest mass rollout of vaccinations in its history, South Africa's Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng caused a stir following his controversial stance on vaccines, wherein he publicly prayed that people be spared the "Satanic agenda of the mark of the beast".
At a later conference, he maintained his position by emphasising "if there is any vaccine that is deliberately intended to do harm to people, the vaccine must never see the light of day".
Hardly a newcomer to provocative statements, Mogoeng's comments have raised heated national debates around freedom of speech, appropriate public behaviour of state officials, and the mixing of religion and secular affairs.
However, a more immediate concern lies in the potential damage that these types of unhelpful and unfounded sentiments may have on the widespread uptake of vaccines, a challenge that will be critical for hopes of bringing an end to the Covid-19 pandemic.
His sentiments fall into the wider phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy, which, in 2019, was declared by the World Health Organisation as one of the top 10 threats to global health.
There are reasonable concerns that underpin many people's vaccine hesitancy, such as fears regarding duration of protection or adverse side effects. However, these can be addressed through improving scientific literacy and the natural advancement of scientific knowledge as vaccine development progresses.
Indeed, the first clinically approved vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech has been proven to be safe and highly effective, with only minor temporary side effects, based on a multi-country trial on over 40 000 volunteers.
It is the vaccine hesitancy and "anti-vaxxer" sentiments like Mogoeng's, based on unfounded conspiracies, misinformation and fearmongering, that are more dangerous, with the potential to derail the success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
Immunisations are considered to be one of the most important public health interventions, and their importance in bringing an end to the pandemic cannot be overstated. However, immunisation has somewhat ironically been so successful in controlling or eradicating many previously devastating infectious diseases that much appreciation for their utility has also been eradicated.
Without the historically overt visibility of infectious diseases in everyday life, societies are now plagued by an unhelpful form of collective memory loss.
Vaccines are to be thanked for significant reductions in various infectious diseases, such as cholera, polio and tetanus, not to mention the complete eradication of smallpox.
Earlier this year, Africa celebrated being declared officially free from wild poliovirus, due to the massive coordination and cooperation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in executing immunisation campaigns across the continent. Before there was a vaccine, polio paralysed or killed approximately half a million people every year, but widespread immunisation managed to reduce global polio cases by 99%.
Before the pandemic, South Africa had reasonable uptake of childhood immunisations, achieving 82% coverage of children under five in 2019. Yet a recent survey conducted on behalf of the World Economic Forum found that only 68% of South Africans are willing to accept a Covid-19 vaccine.
This tentatively suggests that anti-vaccination attitudes are not endemic to general society, and that the high level of hesitancy towards vaccines is rather more likely to be specific to a Covid-19 vaccine, possibly fluctuating in response to news and (mis)information.
Despite declaring that he "[doesn't] know anything about vaccines", Mogoeng puts forward unfounded claims about potential vaccines, including that they may aim "to infuse triple-six in the lives of people, meant to corrupt their DNA". He went on to say, "why should I have the vaccine if I am not positive?", a statement which exposes a clear lack of understanding about the fundamental function, and necessity, of vaccines for public health.
Baseless and inaccurate statements
His statements are not only baseless and inaccurate, but may be dangerously influential in turning people away from taking the vaccine, with wider health consequences. Myths about the vaccine altering DNA through the insertion of mRNA have been scientifically debunked multiple times, with conspiracy theories warning of hidden agendas of microchips and the "mark of the beast" being similarly rigorously fact-checked and disproved.
These types of misinformation and deliberate spreading of false narratives play into the already widespread fears and anxieties that circulate in times of crisis.
Worryingly, these types of reckless comments from highly visible authorities can be influential in decreasing public confidence in vaccines. This has been seen in Brazil, where unwillingness to take a Covid-19 vaccine has increased from 9% in August to 22% this week. Research has found a correlation between citizens' trust in Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has publicly expressed his refusal to take a Covid-19 vaccine, and their own unwillingness to take the vaccine.
Moreover, while religion may often be used as a justification for anti-vaccination sentiments, much of the anti-vaccination rhetoric is not linked to any fundamental source, but are instead entangled in a plethora of interpretations and opinions.
Working with religious leaders as collaborative stakeholders in education, scientific communication and community projects, therefore, represent key opportunities for the government and scientists to improve vaccine confidence.
In Pakistan and Jerusalem, religious leaders were pivotal in increasing vaccination rates and building trust by working with local communities in faith-based interventions.
Receiving the Covid-19 vaccine on South African shores looks to be only the first step in an uphill battle in ensuring optimal vaccine coverage across the country.
Contestable and unhelpful statements, like Mogoeng's, which are contrary to current scientific consensus, simply cannot be afforded in the fight to save lives.
- Kayla Arnold is Communications Assistant at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. She holds an Honours degree in International Studies from the University of Stellenbosch and is currently completing an MSc in Global Health and Development at University College London. Her work focuses on sociopolitical development, conflict, and global health.
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