Will COVID-19 vaccination hit Masisi’s target of 64% by December?


Health authorities are so confident of reaching President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s target that they even expect the vaccination of the country’s eligible population to reach 80% by March next year. Doubters, however, have heard the high optimism before and are sceptical. Staff Writers, MBONGENI MGUNI & PHATSIMO KAPENG

Sceptics point to the initial optimism that greeted the start of the COVID-19 vaccination programme in March. At that time, the Health Ministry had just wrapped up a lightning speed countrywide measles campaign, vaccinating 220,000 children within 10 days, through 700 vaccine sites including health posts and mobile stops. All that was needed was for the vaccines to arrive and the entire eligible population could be sorted out within a month, health authorities said at the time, buzzing with confidence. With an initial budget of P164 million for distribution and other vaccine-related costs, authorities in March had pledged to seek out each eligible Motswana to get jabs in arms.

“Some we will follow by car, others by boat but no one will be left behind,” then Health and Wellness permanent secretary, Kabelo Ebineng told a televised briefing at the time.

“Government and the private sector will work together, which the law provides for.”

Then Health Services director, Malebogo Kebabonye said the measles campaign was a sort of ‘test’ for the COVID-19 vaccination drive.

“This tells us that when the COVID-19 vaccine arrives in the coming days, we will be able to pass it onto people properly and quickly,” she said at the time. What followed was the polar opposite of the measles campaign, with the drip-drip arrival of vaccines worsened by a less than seamless distribution effort, which saw several changes or adjustments in policy and a much slower than expected vaccination rate.

Vaccines have not arrived as expected, disrupting authorities from replicating the lightning speed of the measles campaign. Frequently, authorities have made public pledges on the arrival of bulk orders of vaccines, only to shift the dates further or reduce the expected number of doses.

The vaccination drive has become a sore spot for President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s administration, which has been criticised for alleged short-sightedness in vaccine procurement and putting too much trust in the COVAX scheme, the World Health Organisation vaccine distribution arrangement for 180 countries.

As the pandemic exploded this year, peaking at 52,616 cases and 577 deaths in July, citizens turned their anger on Masisi’s administration, which in turn blamed global vaccine inequity and COVAX injustices.

As the Delta-variant third wave, which had been driving the peaks began to ebb, Masisi announced he was targeting the vaccination of 64% of the eligible population by end of October, before revising the date to the end of December.

His confidence was anchored on the signing of several bilateral supply deals, the establishment of vaccine capacity in South Africa to supply through COVAX and, locally, the engagement of the private sector to boost the vaccination drive.

Masisi’s targets, announced when he eased restrictions on September 3 and repeated over Independence, came amidst a general scepticism caused by the frequent changes made to the delivery dates. The more than two-week delay in the roll-out of 400,000 doses purchased from Sinovac in September, did not help national optimism.

This week, however, Health permanent secretary, Grace Muzila echoed the March optimism around vaccination, saying, in fact, at present, the campaign was well ahead of where it needed to be to meet the 64% target.

“From the vaccines, we have right now, if we use all of them, by mid-November, we would be at 57% of the eligible population and that’s why we believe that the 64% by December, we will manage to get there,” she said in a televised briefing on Tuesday. According to Muzila, the government has ordered about five million doses and has thus far received 1.6 million, a figure that includes 762,000 doses as donations.

“We are at least three million doses between now and December, but perhaps we could get 50% of that,” she said. “We have to pray that from that three million, at least 50% of it comes.

“By March, we expect to get to 80%.”

By this week, at least 33% of the eligible population of 1.53 million had received their first doses, while 23% of the eligible population had received their full doses.

Increasingly, health authorities think one of the major threats to missing the 64% target is growing vaccine hesitancy or apathy, particularly amongst the 30-somethings for whom vaccination opened up recently.

“We have spent P300 million on vaccinations and I saw yesterday empty chairs, where 10 minutes pass without anyone coming forward,” Muzila said.

“We are using a lot of money for this distribution and we need people to come forward and get vaccinated so that vaccines do not sit in warehouses.”

She said health authorities are considering vaccinating over the weekends to get past the situation where younger people are not vaccinating because they cannot get a leave of absence from work. The other plan, Muzila said, is to engage employers so that workers are vaccinated at their workplaces.

A Mmegi news crew out and about in Gaborone yesterday, found different reasons why the younger targeted population appears to be slower on the uptake of vaccines, compared to other age groups. The 30 to 45 age group, for whom vaccination recently became available, is by far the largest demographic in the eligible population.

Tshenolo Mogotsi, 34“I had decided to go and take the vaccine, but now am not that sure because I received bad news from one of my customers yesterday saying she lost her younger sister after vaccination.

The customer suspects the vaccine because her sister had no other illness and she only got sick after taking the vaccine.

“As for me, I’m scared right now but I prefer to go and take the vaccine because a lot of people who are close to me have taken the vaccine and they have no problems caused by the vaccine.”

Lesedi Beechey, 44“I have not yet taken the vaccine. I am still making up my mind because so far I have seen a lot on social media platforms about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“As a Christian, I have decided to give myself some time to think as well as pray about it so that I allow God to lead me to the right way.

“I have heard some pastors saying this vaccine is a ‘Mark of the Beast’ while others were saying the vaccine is OK we should go and vaccinate.

“The other thing is that we have been taking other vaccines even before this pandemic, but I have never seen the kind of confusion like the one with the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That thing alone raises eyebrows and maybe that’s why we need more time to know and understand what’s really happening.”

Keneilwe Kabo Bagwasi, 32“I’m going to take the vaccine because I believe that as much as we are told about the side effects, we should understand that our bodies are not the same and we should expect different reactions from the vaccine.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to save one’s life. “As for our age group, the government should know that they are dealing with people who like going out and chilling with friends, having two or three drinks.

“It may be very difficult to see them coming forward to take the vaccine because they are thinking of having fun with their friends.”

Karabo Sebetlela, 36“I have already taken the vaccine because I wanted to protect my body from this dangerous monster called COVID-19.

We have already seen what this pandemic can do to our lives so it would be so irresponsible not to take it. “I encourage everyone to go and take the vaccine. There is nothing wrong with this vaccine at all, so let us not allow social media to lead us to death because as of now the world has not lost millions of people because of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We have seen other people from other countries going out in numbers to take the vaccine to save their lives and nothing happened to them because this vaccine was discovered by qualified scientists who went through the research.”Responding to a questionnaire sent before vaccination was opened to the plus-30-year-olds, the health ministry told Mmegi that vaccine hesitancy was a minimal issue in the vaccination campaign. “This related to some people who were unwilling to come for vaccination due to amongst others, religious reasons, while others were reluctant to take the COVID-19 jab for personal fears, like whether or not vaccines are safe for them,” the ministry said. “The good news, however, is that those unwilling to take COVID-19 vaccines are in the minority when compared to multitudes willing to take the vaccine.”

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