Phumla Williams | Behind the state's communications strategy to encourage Covid-19 vaccinations

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Citizens receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at Zandspruit vaccination site earlier this month. (Photo by Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)
Citizens receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at Zandspruit vaccination site earlier this month. (Photo by Gallo Images/Luba Lesolle)

While the vaccination rollout target is far from being where it is envisaged, the government remains steadfast in forging ahead with its communication initiatives to educate and encourage all people in South Africa that vaccination remains the best means to fight the virus, writes GCIS director-general Phumla Williams. 

South Africa's national vaccine rollout programme, which recently opened to include all adults, is the biggest ever undertaken as a nation.

Its target is to vaccinate the majority of the population rapidly, especially adults and those with comorbidities, who are at a higher risk of developing severe illness and dying if they catch the virus without the vaccine.

All South Africans are drawn to be part of this massive vaccine campaign by empowering them with the necessary information that will enable them to take control of their health and fight the spread of the virus.

Government communications have been activated through the national, provincial and local communication systems to take the message of prevention and vaccination as far and wide as possible.

This communication campaign is guided by a progressive vaccine communication strategy, which began early last year after the first Covid-19 case in the country was reported.

This multifaceted strategy covers all aspects of the nation's vaccine rollout and is driven at the highest level by the National Coronavirus Command Council chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa and supported by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Vaccines chaired by Deputy President David Mabuza.

The unique strategy is based on scientific evidence, which has dictated an intervention approach to deal with the virus since it emerged in 2020.

The state’s Covid-19 communications strategy 

At the heart of the strategy is partnerships that draw in different sectors to advance the advocacy of non-pharmaceutical health prevention measures and vaccination rollout drive. 

The collaborative partnership which has brought together business, labour and civil society under the auspices of the National Communication Partnership meets weekly to plan and execute vaccination communication.

The collaborative communication approach being used has proven effective and continues to be relevant in bolstering our efforts to achieve herd immunity by vaccinating most South Africans.

Importantly, the success of this advocacy relies on our overwhelming response to the call to get vaccinated. The partnership includes youth, labour and business formations, religious formations and traditional leadership. Ward councillors and political leaders across various provinces are the primary communication messengers, particularly at the local level.

The media has been playing a critical role of disseminating pertinent information and contributed immensely in helping the country to pass the 10 million vaccination milestone. The partnership's communication personnel from all sectors use up-to-date information that is sanctioned by the Department of Health and GCIS. Research continues to be one of the critical pillars in guiding the messages.

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Since the country started vaccinating young people aged over 18 years from Friday, 20 August 2021, more than 500 000 South Africans responded on the day that the vaccination of this cohort was opened.

Young people across the country have also volunteered in various communities, like those from #GrandkidsforGogos, to assist the elderly with vaccination registration at social grant pay points. The future looks bright with the drive shown by the enthusiastic youth; both in getting vaccinated themselves and also helping their elderly parents and grandparents to get vaccinated.

Although the Covid-19 vaccination rollout programme is the biggest health project South Africa has ever undertaken, the country's immunisation programme to protect children has also always formed an important part of the health programme for children from birth. Adults also have always embraced preventative health measures, such as taking vaccines for flu and yellow fever.  

Best defence against Covid-19 

Vaccination continues to be the country's best defence against Covid-19 in the absence of any cure. All of us have a collective responsibility to get vaccinated and work towards convincing those still hesitant to consider taking the vaccine. Vaccinations significantly reduce the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death.

The government continues to urge all people in South Africa to practice non-pharmaceutical health safety measures as a first line of defence. These include wearing a mask in public; washing hands with water and soap or using a 70% alcohol-based hand sanitiser; maintaining social distancing of at least 1.5m and avoiding large gatherings, especially in confined spaces.

Guided by the government's unique Government Segmentation Model (GSM), communication continues to engage directly with the specific needs of each sector of the population. Information is packaged in the language that is predominant in each district.

The GSM, which continues to assist in directly engaging communities at district level, uses initiatives such as door-to-door campaigns, activations to encourage vaccination, communication support to local councillors,  content and infographic development, especially for social media platforms such as WhatsApp groups.

Opinion makers, thought leaders, influencers and sport personalities have partnered with the government through various platforms such as webinars, community radio interactive conversations with listeners at local level and providing advocacy through their constituencies. This is in addition to the mainstream media which have contributed immensely through their respective talk shows.

Vaccine hesitancy 

Together with the solid partnerships, the government continues to welcome inputs from society on how best to package the information for their respective constituencies. Such feedback enriches the mandate of empowering South Africans with relevant information.

Given the complexities presented by Covid-19, it remains essential the government continually explore ways of encouraging the few who remain reluctant or hesitant to take the vaccine. 

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At the start of the first phase of the vaccination programme, the country faced two challenges.

First, securing the vaccines and second, dealing with the fears of people who were hesitant to take the vaccine.

A research survey conducted by the University of Johannesburg, together with the Human Sciences Research Council, reports more than 72% of South Africans are now willing to take the vaccine. Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla has since assured South Africans the country has enough vaccines.

While there is tremendous power in communication, it must be accompanied by increased vaccination sites in both rural and urban areas. All the provincial leadership structures have invested significantly in increasing the number of vaccination sites and are also providing free transport for those unable to access the sites.  

While the vaccination rollout target is far from being where it is envisaged, the government remains steadfast in forging ahead with its communication initiatives to educate and encourage all people in South Africa that vaccination remains the best means to fight the virus. The country remains on high alert for any potential increase in Covid-19 infections.

However, it remains incumbent on each and every one of us to lend a hand and assist the government in getting more people to vaccinate so we can save both lives and livelihoods.

- Phumla Williams is the director-general of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS). 

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