FIFI PETERS: AME (African Media Entertainment), which is the holding company for a lot of media companies including Moneyweb, has partnered with the Department of Health to try and encourage more South Africans to get vaccinated. David Harrison, who is part of the Vaccination Demand Task Team at the Department of Health is joining the SAfm Market Update right now to speak more about why you should be vaccinated.
David, thanks so much for your time. Just talk to us about how the Department of Health is managing vaccine hesitancy and some of the negative feedback that you are receiving around the Covid-19 vaccine.
DAVID HARRISON: Well, thank you very much and thanks so much for having me on the show, and for the commitment of AME and Caxton to partner with the department. You know, reporting that we don’t have the degree of rigid resistance to vaccination that we have in many other countries – in the United States and some countries in Europe – we’re up to a third to even half of people won’t get vaccinated.
When we think about vaccine hesitancy in South Africa, I think it’s useful for us to think that, based on a number of surveys, we know that about three out of six people are likely to come forward just if we give them the right information and ensure that sites are open close to them. One in six is resistant to vaccination, and it’s going to take time to convince them. Another two out of six of are the people on the fence. They’re the swing voters, and we really believe that that’s where we need to invest most of our efforts in getting them over the line. We’ve intensified that effort over the last month.
I’ve been brought in to lead the Demand Acceleration Task Team, and I think the most important thing we can do is ensure a constant stream of truthful, factual information, both because that takes away a lot of the anxiety that makes people distrustful or open to conspiracy theories, and because it provides them the basic information they need to go and get vaccinated.
So we have a number of teams around the country, both on the ground and listening in on social media, doing what we call social listening, hearing people’s anxieties, uncovering the myths, and we will use the information that we glean to shape our public communication in partnership with GCIS (the Government Communication and Information System) and many, many other partners in civil society, unions and business.
FIFI PETERS: You’re right, because there is a lot of fake news out there that has contributed to some degree of hesitancy to go and get the jab. But how are you ensuring that the message lands, because I think that among ideas that have been brought onto the table is ensuring that the communication is also done in languages that people understand. Have you taken the messaging that far to tailor it to people’s understanding?
DAVID HARRISON: Yes. Just to give you a sense – and it’s been a great partnership with the Pepkor group of companies – we’ve managed to distribute 10 million leaflets in all 11 languages across the country through the Department of Health, and another 10 million through Pep Stores and Shoe City and Ackermans. We’ve ramped up communication in all 11 languages and radio stations. It’s certainly seeking to keep building out those type of work relationships.
The bottom line is that ultimately people will go and get vaccinated if their neighbour has been vaccinated, or if they hear it from somebody whom they trust.
Frankly, I think we’ve done too much national talking and we’ve relied too much on simply political leadership to do the talking. A lot of our focus over the last month has been to really drive communication down into communities and to use the networks that people trust – to use faith-based leadership, civil society leadership, the unions and the local business sector. Those are the primary points of contact and the primary points of intersection with people in a way that that can’t be achieved simply through national media.
So that’s really our focus over the next few months – and using local radio, using community newspapers is a critical part of that strategy.
FIFI PETERS: David, take us through some of the guidelines when it comes to vaccinating in the workplace.
DAVID HARRISON: Well, for vaccination in the workplace to happen, the occupational health site has to be officially registered with the Department of Health. Government has worked very closely with the business sector to try and expand the number of occupational health services through the workplace.
The reality is that we haven’t had as many workplace sites as we would’ve hoped. We’ve now about 120 workplace sites. But I think the encouraging thing now is that we are starting to see many companies saying that they willing to vaccinate not only their employees, but people in the surrounding communities as well. And here mining companies are at the fore.
This is really great. It could be really instrumental in an area like a Boitumelo ? ……5:53 Platinum, where at the moment we still have low uptake. We still have a million people unvaccinated in that district alone. This is a fantastic opportunity based on the commitment of these mining companies to, to go into surrounding communities, to link up with local labour and with the local Department of Health and try and crack this challenge in a place like Boitumelo […… ?].
FIFI PETERS: We’ve also seen one or two companies announcing that vaccines will be mandatory for their staff. What’s national government’s thinking of this and the potential economic implications of such a move?
DAVID HARRISON: Government has made it very clear that from a public point of view, from a government point of view, there won’t be use of mandatory vaccination to exclude people from any public service. That’s clear, but they’re also saying that if companies want to introduce mandatory vaccinations and require their staff, for example, to have mandatory vaccinations, they accept that.
I understand that. I think if you have companies that are client-facing, that are really serious about enhancing their overall workplace wellbeing, it absolutely makes sense for everybody to be vaccinated. Of course, we do have a large informal sector, we have high unemployment rates, so on its own that sort of policy is unlikely to affect viral ……7:28? dynamics.
But I think it does send a strong signal to everyone in South Africa that Covid vaccination must become a routine part of life because it makes economic, it makes social, it makes family sense.
FIFI PETERS: I agree with you. But then I think that we also need to be a bit sensitive around those who for their own reasons are still sitting on the fence when it comes to vaccines, and members who could be part of labour unions – and the potential backlash that we could see there as a result of companies making vaccines mandatory. Has the government thought about this and thought about what the possible response could be?
DAVID HARRISON: Again, just to be clear, the government is not promoting mandatory vaccination. It’s certainly understanding that companies may well choose to do that. I completely agree that this is not going to be the primary way of driving demand, and we do need to be careful that we don’t create a negative backlash. In terms of the unions we’ve taken notes of Amcu’s concerns. But I must say overall in our engagement with unions we’re working very closely with the unions through union mobilisers.
We’ve received a lot of support for an endorsement for the for national vaccination programme, and I think in the next two weeks we’re going to see a heightened declaration, a clarity of leadership emerging – not only from unions, but civil society and the business sector as well – in a way that we haven’t seen before.
FIFI PETERS: David, as we head towards the end of the year, just take us through the latest vaccination strategy for South Africa. What is the status there?
DAVID HARRISON: Right now about 30% of the adult population has had at least one dose. We don’t know when the fourth wave is going to hit, but it’s probably going to be, unfortunately, just around Christmas time as we enter the new year. So it’s absolutely critical that we vaccinate another 16 million people who haven’t yet come forward, so that we achieve about a 70% coverage in the adult population before the end of the year.
If we were to achieve that, we would avert probably about 20 000 deaths, so that’s what we have to gear up to do. We need to ensure that we continue to expand access. We have now about 3 000 sites across both the public and private sector. We have to drive demand up. From next weekend there’s going to be an accelerated commitment, a political commitment driven by the president to drive up public demand, and we’re hoping to sustain that before the end of the year.
We need to ensure that 250 000 people – that’s a quarter of a million people – who haven’t been vaccinated before pitch up every single workday between now and the end of the year for vaccination. That’s the type of numbers that we’re going to require if we are going to ensure that we don’t have the same sort of situations we had in the second and third waves.
FIFI PETERS: And tomorrow’s a public holiday. Just talk to us about open doors for those who wants to get a jab tomorrow and over this long weekend.
DAVID HARRISON: There are sites that that are open over weekends and on public holidays – public and private sites. Next weekend we’re going to be seeing a commitment from all public and private sites to stay open for the entire Saturday so that we can start to accelerate vaccination over the weekends. We know from the sites that are open over the weekends that people do come there. So starting to ensure that we make this a six-day project and not a five-day project a week is crucial if we’re going to achieve our targets.
FIFI PETERS: Alright. David, thanks so much for joining us and debunking some of those myths and misperceptions around the Covid-19 vaccine. That was David Harrison, the Vaccination Demand Task Team lead for the Department of Health.