Vaccine hesitancy and fighting Covid-19

With existing high vaccine hesitancy, it is debatable whether South Africa will reach herd immunity in the near future, says the writer. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA). Archives

With existing high vaccine hesitancy, it is debatable whether South Africa will reach herd immunity in the near future, says the writer. Picture: Ian Landsberg/African News Agency (ANA). Archives

Published Sep 8, 2022


By Hlengiwe Phetha

The Covid-19 pandemic was one of the worst health disasters the world has ever known, resulting in disruptions in productivity, lockdowns, travel bans, and the introduction of a raft of health protocols and quarantine measures.

As a result of the closure of borders, businesses, particularly those providing non-essential services, faced serious challenges. Many people lost their jobs in sectors such as aviation, tourism, hospitality and others, which had a ripple effect throughout the economy, devastating especially contract workers and those in the informal sector.

Small and medium-sized enterprises found it difficult to sustain their operations. The economic and labour market shocks had a negative impact on the supply of goods and services and consumption, with consumers unable to purchase the goods and services.

The economic landscape was gripped by fear and uncertainty, with investors holding back and employers terminating their workers’ employment contracts. Throughout the pandemic, the economy began to deteriorate owing to the negative impact of the health crisis on global trade. Some governments started to implement swift policy responses to limit the effects of Covid-19 on their labour forces and families.

The reduction of infection was placed at the top of the agenda for most organisations. Owing to reduced economic activity across the board, the impact of the pandemic was felt at all levels.

As we move forward, Covid-19 health protocols have remained in place, but in some cases they have been relaxed in order to strengthen demand-led recovery. The Covid-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that we live in a globalised world which requires deep interconnections and strong interdependencies within and among countries. Globalisation has expanded trade, boosted international travel, and led to global technological developments in different spheres.

On June 22, Minister of Health Joe Phaahla repealed section 16(a) and (c) of the regulations relating to the surveillance and control of notifiable medical conditions, made in terms of section 90(1)(i), (k) and (w) of the National Health Act 2003, in their entirety. The announcement by the minister of health on lifting the remaining pandemic protocols has brought excitement and hope to many in South Africa.

The challenge is to ensure that people play it safe rather than adopt an “I don’t care” attitude towards health and safety in their workplaces. Considering that in the past few months South Africa has recorded low Covid-19 infections and minimal deaths, both the mandatory use of masks and restrictions on gatherings have been repealed.

However, the future is unknown, and the way the virus is going to mutate is still a mystery. A complete disregard for health and safety in the labour market will have dire consequences. Therefore, workers should remain vigilant in following the applicable codes of good practice on the management of exposure to Sars-CoV-2 in the workplace.

Employers should endeavour to develop mitigation strategies to limit infections and prevent the deaths of employees. Lifting the remaining protocols has implications for normalising life in general, and these are far-reaching, since businesses will now begin to operate fully.

Schools and higher education institutions that have been conducting their classes online will now have students back on campuses. Consequently, a range of organisations now have obligations to mitigate the risks of being exposed to the virus.

Everyone has a responsibility to deal with the psychological and educational vulnerabilities resulting from the pandemic. Organisations should set up centres to deal with the often dire psychological impacts of Covid-19.

Removing the remaining Covid-19 restrictions means that people are back to square one, and there is therefore a growing feeling of hopelessness and anxiety. People are grappling with anxiety because they do not know what is going to happen, as some of them are reliving the trauma and social isolation of the pandemic. The moment of truth has arrived. Covid-19 was a fiasco.

The sense of breathing fresh air and the feeling of being free at last surpass the imaginary prison of suffocation and captivity. Anxiety abounds even while the chains are off, as the monster is still with us. People can’t breathe, but there is conviction in people’s hearts that Covid is gone now and they are no longer in danger.

Although the Covid-19 protocols were necessary to contain the pandemic, the unintended consequences far outweigh the benefits. In several cases, the maintenance of Covid protocols institutionalised the increased mental health challenges. For some, health protocols reignited traumatic Covid-19 memories.

These unintended memories are a reminder of the journey ahead and the need to vaccinate the population. Now that all the remaining restrictions have been removed, the challenge is to forge ahead with new dreams for better things to come. Thus, the removal of the Covid-19 protocols gives rise to gratitude and a sense of security on the part of many.

Over the years, South Africa has carefully implemented and followed the World Health Organization Covid-19 regulations and guidelines, which allowed many people to avoid Covid-19’s extreme effects.

South Africa enabled its citizens to be resilient to the virus by providing a Covid-19 grant to those in need of temporary financial assistance.

The Covid-19 social relief of distress grant was given to persons with insufficient means, such as asylum seekers, permanent residents, refugees, and holders of special permits under the Angolan dispensation, the Lesotho dispensation or the Zimbabwe exemption dispensation. The income threshold for insufficient means was set at R350 per person per month.

A person was not simultaneously entitled to a social grant for himself or herself and a Covid-19 distress grant.

In conclusion, lifting the remaining Covid-19 health protocols has serious consequences when one considers the levels of vaccine hesitancy in the country. While the numbers of Covid-19 infections have gone down, the negative impact of Covid-19 has yet to be determined and understood.

It is widely agreed that removing the remaining health protocols will have dire consequences, particularly if the country has not yet reached herd immunity. With existing high vaccine hesitancy, it is debatable whether South Africa will reach herd immunity in the near future.

Efforts must be made to ensure that a significant swathe of the population is immune to the coronavirus to reduce the infection rate. Increasing the number of people who are vaccinated has the potential to develop people’s natural resistance to the disease.

Those who are vaccinated develop antibodies to fight the infection when the body is exposed to the virus.

Hlengiwe Phetha is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.