South Africa faces widespread scepticism over safety


As a nurse in a country battling several epidemic diseases, Lerato Mthunzi sometimes vaccinates other South Africans, but she says there’s no way she’ll take the COVID-19 shot when it rolls out — she doesn’t trust it will be safe or effective.

Now that South Africa has put on hold use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, after data showed it may not protect sufficiently well against the country’s dominant coronavirus variant, Mthunzi feels even less inclined. It is a feeling she says she shares with most of the 17,000 young nurses of her Indaba union.

“Hell no, we will not be taking this vaccine until there are clinical trials that assure health workers that indeed this vaccine is safe that indeed this vaccine will not leave many of us having secondary conditions,” said the 39-year old, who has worked as a nurse for 20 years.

Despite working under difficult conditions, with a lack of adequate PPE gear at times and colleagues contracting and subsequently succumbing to the virus, the mother of two is determined that being vaccinated is not an option for her.

“We do not trust the vaccine obviously there’s a lot of contradictory stories out there. WHO (World Health Organization) itself has not given us the confidence so much,” she said.

Even when South Africa secures enough doses to cover the two thirds of people it needs for herd immunity – besides AstraZeneca, authorities say they have 20 million doses secured from Pfizer and 9 million from Johnson & Johnson – it faces big logistical hurdles in rolling them out.

But perhaps the biggest unknown is whether it can convince growing numbers of vaccine sceptics to take the jab. The stakes are high: COVID-19 has hit South Africa harder than anywhere else on the continent, infecting 1.5 million people, killing at least 45,000 and wiping out millions of jobs, while a more infectious variant that evolved here has spread all over the world, leading several nations to ban visitors.

Two polls, a global one by IPSOS and a national one by South African fintech start-up CompariSure, this month suggested that half of South Africans would refuse the vaccine. A University of Johannesburg (UJ) survey, with the biggest sample size of 10,000, put the number more optimistically at a third.

Efforts to eradicate disease have sometimes failed in Africa when a section of the elite and public reject vaccination –often driven by religious beliefs and mistrust of pharmaceutical companies because of their shaky past on the continent. In 2003, Muslim clerics instigated a boycott of polio shots in northern Nigeria just when it was on the verge of being wiped out.

Last month Tanzanian President John Magufuli told citizens to avoid coronavirus vaccines calling them a foreign plot. Last December, South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng prayed that “any vaccine that is of the devil … meant to corrupt the DNA of people, may it be destroyed by fire”, in comments he declined to recant despite fierce criticism.