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Traditional leaders plead with government to allow an imbizo to help dispel vaccine misinformation

Traditional leaders plead with government to allow an imbizo to help dispel vaccine misinformation
Protesters against mandatory vaccination gather at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town on 21 August 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

The director-general of the national department of health, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, said his department was working on various programmes to 'counter the anti-vaxxers'.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Traditional leaders have called on the government to allow them a one-time chance to call an imbizo (gathering) to discuss vaccines with their communities as another way to combat vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccine messages that are being spread in communities.

On 27 August, during a national briefing on the vaccine roll-out in the country, Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla invited Lerato Moletsane, a Johannesburg resident who had not been keen on getting the vaccine – until she got Covid-19 – to talk about her experiences and issues.

“I was hesitant for some time,” Moletsane said. “I thought Covid did not exist. It was never on my mind to vaccinate until I also became sick.”

She said she tested positive for Covid-19 on 20 June. “As a person living with anxiety it was not good for me,” she added.

She explained that her husband tested positive first, and then she got sick too. “I see myself as a resilient person but this thing humbled me. I was told not to go anywhere and get someone to collect medication for me.”

She said that for nine days she was so sick she could hardly move. “Before that I was very active. The way Covid knocked me was something I have never experienced. That changed my mind,” she said.

Moletsane said she decided to get vaccinated as a way to help others close to her to be convinced that it will be good for them to get the jab as well. “I have changed from being vaccine hesitant to pro-vaccine,” she said. “If we can all have this done our communities will thrive again.

“I was so excited when my daughter who is 20 sent me a picture to say she was vaccinated too. We have the power to make a difference. We can make a difference.”

Meanwhile, traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape have called for an exemption to be made for them to call an imbizo to discuss the safety of vaccines and to address rumours that the vaccine is dangerous.

Under current regulations, gatherings are limited to 50 people or less for indoor venues and 100 people or less for outdoor venues.

Eastern Cape Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA (Contralesa) chairperson Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana said that, as Contralesa, their position was that the law must be respected.

“We trust that the government will never mislead our people but it is up to them to take the vaccine and in the same time we have advised the government to make sure that the vaccine is not dangerous to people and indeed government has assured us that there is nothing dangerous.

“We are aware that many people are not vaccinated, particularly in rural areas, because … government have these vaccination points in towns far away from people. Another concern is that we as traditional leaders we have a duty to convene imbizo to explain to people but because of lockdown we are prohibited to have those gatherings.”

He confirmed that some people are still not convinced about the vaccine as they believed in traditional ways of doing things. “Traditionalists have their own things. They believe that they are not going to vaccinate, instead are going to visit traditional practitioners for traditional herbs as they do not have enough information about the vaccine. They believe that their bodies do not know the vaccine and are not fit for them hence the majority of men are afraid of vaccination.”

Nonkonyana said the lockdown has a huge impact in this confusion, with many theories  circulating, because there are no gatherings allowing them to explain to people what it is all about.

“Again, the government said this is voluntary, but there are other government officials saying people are not going to get their social grant if they are not vaccinated and that conveys another message to people.”

In KwaNobuhle, one of the leaders of the Treatment Action Campaign’s outreach teams, Thembisile Nogampula, said they are spending up to two hours at a family’s house to counsel them about taking the vaccine.

“There is a lot of nonsense going around about the vaccine,” he said. “The other day a group of pensioners got the vaccine and almost all of them received a message saying that they will die within two years of getting it.”

Earlier this week the Pfizer vaccine, which is used in South Africa, was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in the United States. It is the first of the messenger-RNA (mRNA) vaccines to be approved for other than emergency use.One of the pieces of misinformation that is being spread about the use of vaccines in South Africa is that the mRNA vaccines are “experimental” and therefore not safe.

A spokesperson for the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), Yuven Gounden, said the Pfizer vaccine was being used in South Africa under emergency authorisation provisions.

“The Pfizer vaccine rolling submission at Sahpra is ongoing until the requirements for registration are achieved (these may include conditions). It is expected to happen following acceptable response/s to the recent queries issued to Pfizer.”

Minister of Health Phaahla said he was happy to see that many people were ignoring the fake news messages that were circulating, but expressed his concern that a few health professionals were now joining the anti-vaccination fray. The director-general of the national department of health, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, said his department was working on various programmes to “counter the anti-vaxxers”.

“There is no reason to doubt that we need a preventative measure,” he said.

Dr Nicholas Crisp, who is managing the vaccine roll-out, said there was more than enough evidence that the vaccine prevents serious disease, hospitalisation and death. He added that older people were at higher risk of death if they got the disease.

“We must make sure that the anti-vaxxers don’t disrupt us,” he said.

Wilma Kamfer from the Overberg district in the Western Cape said they had considerable success convincing people to take the vaccine. Messages about how it will allow people to travel were particularly successful for the pensioners in their district.

She said the Unicef truck, which aims to bring pro-vaccination messages to young people, was targeted by anti-vaxxers when it was in her district. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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