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Should South Africa Force mandatory Vaccinations to fight the new Covid Variant ?

Just when we thought our lives were returning to some kind of normal, the latest coronavirus mutation, that sounds like the name of a fertiliser company, hit our shores.

Omicron didn't only hit us; we "discovered" it. Let me state upfront that the last people who should be blamed for the devastating impact this new variant has wreaked in just a few days are the scientists.

Yes, we can debate whether they should have announced the discovery of Omicron the way they did; whether we shouldn't have waited for the World Health Organisation to make the announcement, together with other countries. But at this early stage, the evidence says it is plausible the variant originated from southern Africa and it would have amounted to an irresponsible self-censor had they decided to keep the discovery under wraps. We identified it first because of our world class surveillance systems.

A much more urgent discussion to be had is why Omicron more than likely originated here, and what we can do to prevent future devastating mutations of the coronavirus to prevent paralysing lockdowns of our economy and society.

What do we know about Omicron so far? Fact: vaccinations still provide a high-level of protection from hospitalisation and death. Fact: the virus mutates wherever it lives. The more it circulates, the more we are giving it an opportunity to do what viruses do - mutate. 

It would be fair to say that South Africa has hit a brick wall in its vaccination rollout strategy. There are still over 20 million adults who have not received even one shot, and we are inoculating just about 120 000 people per day. Only 36% of the adult population is fully vaccinated. 

This is way too few to reach a stage where enough people are vaccinated to make a serious dent in the infection rate of Covid-19.

Simply put, if we don't vaccinate 70% to 80% of the adult population soon, future mutations will – not could – occur. Which brings me to the inevitable debate of mandatory vaccinations.

Many universities and private companies have implemented, or are planning to introduce vaccination mandates for their staff. This is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough for the government to reach its targets.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet have several tough decisions to make, but now is the time to be creative and bold. On Sunday night, Ramaphosa gave the firmest indication yet that he is in favor of mandatory vaccination. He will now appoint a task team to advise Cabinet on the way forward. This must be done as a matter of absolute urgency.

If South Africa considers mandatory vaccinations for its citizens, we won't be the first country to do so. Last week, Austria became the first European nation to announce mandatory vaccinations for all its citizens from 1 February.

Naturally, the announcement was met with resistance and protests from anti-vaccination lobby groups and right-wing politicians, but this was to be expected and cannot be a reason not to consider it. I'm sure hundreds of lawyers are standing by to challenge the constitutionality of mandatory vaccinations. This is good and the process should no longer be delayed.

Uganda has made it compulsory for its citizens to be vaccinated if they want to visit state clinics or receive medicine. Many countries around the world, including the United States, require government employees to be vaccinated.

In all these cases, there are always exemptions on medical grounds, which have to be signed off by doctors.

Mandatory vaccination is not something new in the history of medicine. When the first vaccinations against polio and smallpox were introduced ages ago, it was compulsory to be inoculated in many societies.

Unfortunately, in the case of Covid-19 vaccines, a combination of terrible government communication and education; the proliferation of fake news about vaccination safety; and a plethora of conspiracies feeding off people's fears and mistrust of the state has seen a poor uptake of vaccinations.

How hard can it be for the Department of Health to get the best advertising and marketing minds in the country together in a ventilated room and design a hard-hitting campaign, based on facts, on how vaccinations will literally save our country from ruin?

Has mutation and the risk of Covid-19 spreading between unvaccinated people been explained thoroughly at all levels of society? I doubt it.

Bring in Dr Phophi Ramathuba, the MEC for health in Limpopo, who has been leading the successful campaign in that province to drive vaccinations. Limpopo still has the highest vaccination rate in the country.

If the Ramaphosa administration is not bold enough to introduce mandatory vaccinations, there are many other in-between steps they should immediately take.

Consider making vaccinations compulsory for civil servants, like in the United States and elsewhere.

It's time to get creative and bold. By now, the government should know exactly which groups of people are most hesitant to be vaccinated. We need clear strategies for each of these categories.

The lowest hanging fruit are people who have not been vaccinated because they don't have information, transport or the means to get to a clinic or hospital. This should be addressed with utmost urgency.

Set up vaccination stations at each Sassa payment point. In fact, require every recipient of a Sassa grant to be vaccinated. Require every visitor to any government building or precinct, including our airports, to be vaccinated.


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Africa Omicron South Africa Force World Health Organisation


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