Vaccination: Our best shot at living with Covid-19

Despite Covid-19 vaccines being in steady supply, South Africa is way behind global and national vaccination targets. Why is this, what are the implications – and what can we do about it?

More than two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, and with a fifth wave hitting our shores here at home, it’s clear this virus isn’t going anywhere. According to targets set by the World Health Organization, 70% of the world should’ve been vaccinated against Covid by June this year, in order to protect everyone from the disease, keep healthcare systems intact, restart economies and lower the risk of new Covid variants emerging.

How far behind vaccination targets are we?

South Africa’s target is to get 40 million people – the estimated size of our adult population – vaccinated against Covid. Currently in SA, you’re considered vaccinated if you’ve received the full initial course of a vaccine – that’s one Johnson & Johnson shot or two Pfizer shots.

To date, only around 19.7 million adults in SA have been vaccinated.

Why are we falling behind?

The biggest threat to SA’s vaccination programme is vaccine hesitancy, which can be described as a delay in accepting vaccines – or refusing them – despite their availability.

People may be resistant to getting vaccinated for a number of reasons, including their life experiences, culture, personal history, religion and politics.

There’s also the problem of the Covid ‘infodemic’; fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories spread largely via social media that undermine people’s trust in health programmes and institutions.

Tackling vaccine hesitancy

According to the South African Medical Research Council, vaccine hesitancy needs to be approached with evidence, education and empathy.

How do we do that? Let’s look at some beliefs behind vaccine hesitancy, and how to address them:

Covid vaccines haven’t been tested enough and aren’t safe.
Billions of people around the world have been safely vaccinated. All approved vaccines have gone through rigorous testing, including multiple stages and clinical trials, to help identify safety issues. Vaccines are also monitored on an ongoing basis.

Life in SA is getting back to normal even with our low vaccination rate – we don’t need vaccines.
Happily, it does feel like normal life is returning, but staying at a low vaccination rate will put us at ongoing risk of new Covid variants that could cause major outbreaks and severe illness. Remember, we’re now mostly free of diseases like smallpox, polio and yellow fever (which caused millions of deaths and disabilities worldwide) thanks to vaccination.

The Covid death rate in SA is low – new variants must be getting weaker, so vaccination is unnecessary.
The Omicron variant may cause less severe disease, but we don’t know whether future variants will be more or less serious. Reports from the biggest hospitals in SA show that almost 99% of people who were admitted to hospital and became seriously ill or died from Covid were unvaccinated.

So many people have had Covid – natural immunity offers enough protection.
It’s true that if you’ve had Covid, you have a good degree of protection against it, but this doesn’t mean you can’t get it again – and you could get sicker or develop long Covid next time round. Vaccination adds another layer of protection and is proven to reduce the severity of the disease.

Back to basics

A low vaccination rate and rising number of Covid infections means we need to keep practising some Covid safety basics:

  • If you’ve got symptoms, stay away from others. Avoid social events and public places.
  • If you test positive for Covid, self-isolate for seven days.
  • Wear a face mask that covers your nose and mouth in indoor public places and on public transport.
  • Wash or sanitise your hands regularly.
  • Try to keep a distance of one metre away from others in public.
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