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DM168 COVID-19

The doctor who set up a safe space vaccination group on social media

Dr Martin Young. (Photo: Supplied)

Doctor Martin Young: ‘We live for those posts that say “I am vaccinated. I was scared but I got it done”’.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

People need a safe space to talk about vaccines. Dr Martin Young came to this realisation when he witnessed “road rage reactions” on social media knowing that this was harming the cause of those who are pro-vaccine. Instead, anti-vaxxers were flooding platforms with fake information.

Young first saw the power of connecting people through social media when he created a WhatsApp group on 16 March 2020 in his home town of Knysna. The first group was about Covid-19 in general and he later formed a group for Covid-19 survivors.

The ear, nose and throat specialist has been running a clinic for surfer’s ear, which is a condition in which abnormal bone growth occurs as a result of frequent exposure to water and cold.

“At the time, nobody knew what was going on,” Young said. “But that group and then the group for Covid-19 survivors grew and grew. Eventually it reached 6,500 people.

“I realised that if you have the right people to join your team you can grow a very powerful group.”

When vaccinations started in SA, Young started wondering why there wasn’t a South African vaccination group on social media.

“I knew how much effort and work and stress it is to start a group,” he said. He contacted Gqeberha resident Carol Vlok, as he was impressed with her social media posts about Covid-19, and they got things started. And so South Africa VacciNation was born.

“Today we have 19 people running it. I think I have physically met only one or two of them. The group now has more than 12,000 members.

“We have very strict rules and it is strictly moderated. This is not a democratic free-speech group,” Young said. “I lurk in the background and I will write something every now and again… But let me tell you, the team takes no crap at all. The moment we pick up someone who is just a troll, they are muted and booted off.

“We recognise that there are public platforms but posts are not moderated and have become a popular place for those with their 5G and other conspiracies. We share science-based information on our group. And yes, sometimes you have to acknowledge that you are wrong. In the Knysna group, we always admitted if we got something wrong. In the beginning, for instance, we were wiping down groceries with bleach. But then science moved on and we said so.

“For those of us diving in deep there is a lot of effort, stress and sweat. I am a medical doctor, not a virologist, not an epidemiologist. I was a general practitioner before specialising. I am only qualified to give general recommendations but I listen to those who are qualified to talk about these issues.

“I realised straight away that it is so much more powerful for people to share their personal stories. We have person after person saying they have been vaccinated.

“The wonderful thing about this group is the complete volunteer group. They are working long hours, but even if we help 10 or 20 people who were just scared of getting the vaccine, it will be worth it.

“I have realised that you cannot challenge conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers with facts. Confrontation doesn’t work. Instead, what people say might work is to have a calm conversation that breaks through the façade. We ask: why do you think like that?

“It helps to talk one-on-one. To ask what they are afraid of. What will change their mind? Just talking like two friendly human beings. That is more likely to persuade the hesitant to take the vaccine,” he said. “The science is strong.”

Young himself hopped on his motorcycle and drove to Gqeberha to get his vaccination.

“There is a relief when you get vaccinated that you really want to share with people; no longer feeling scared that you will bring the virus home and give it to your family. I went on my motorbike to PE to get my shot. I drove there and back in a day,” he said.

“What we found is that crowdsourcing helps. We live for those messages from those who were hesitant.”

Another admin of the group, who Young first saw on the Knysna WhatsApp group, is Jill Van’t Hof.

“Jill probably reads every single post and comment. I noticed her patience and kindness and the way she engaged with people. She was so lovely.

“When Carol and I approached her she had no experience with Facebook group management. But she has been wonderful. I think of all of us she [is probably the one who has] read every single post.

“It is a time-intensive job. We [have] no respite. It takes many hours. But we live for those posts that say ‘I am vaccinated. I was scared but I got it done.’” 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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