While vaccinations are well underway for all adults, and government is increasing efforts to increase demand, volunteers who are key workers at vaccination sites remain overlooked.
The South African health department set a vaccination target of 300 000 people a day, to meet the goal of immunizing 67% of the population by the end of 2021. That would mean vaccinating close to 40 million people, yet the current rate of vaccinations in South Africa only reached 18,1% at the time of publication, nowhere near projected timelines and targets.
Government has announced plans to increase vaccine demand to meet this goal. The plan is to bring the vaccines closer to where people are, to places such as taxi ranks, grocery shops and places of worship (churches and synagogues). Even e-hauling company Uber is in focus, offering up to R100 off trips to and from vaccination centres. This is a clear indication of government’s desperate efforts to return the country to normal.
The most promising option for a lockdown-free South Africa might be getting most of its citizens vaccinated. In Melbourne, Australia all lockdown restrictions will be lifted on Friday, October 22, because 70% of its population has been vaccinated: A hopeful reality that could breathe life into South Africa’s dwindling economy.
When people think of frontline workers, images of healthcare professionals dressed in crisp white hazmat suits, white masks and gloves immediately come to mind. Often our understanding of people working on the frontline has them looking like health professionals. However, non-healthcare workers, who are not clad head to toe in personal protection equipment (PPE), such as volunteers at vaccine sites, play an invaluable role as the first line of defence against the covid-19 virus.
Vaccine volunteers help in an unconventional way
Wits alumnus and digital epidemiologist, Rufaro Samanga, is a public health professional focused on patterns of illness and disease. The digital part of her job is her use of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which gives her an insightful perspective of what is happening during the pandemic.
Samanga is an unconventional vaccine volunteer through the work she does online. She creates twitter threads educating users on covid-19 and the vaccines for it. Her content answers questions that range from covid-19 myths to vaccine hesitancy. “People want to get vaccinated; there is a sincere earnestness, but the information made available to them is not necessarily helpful,’’ she said.
Rixile Hlongwane is an honours student in biochemistry and physiology at Unisa. She volunteers at the Bertha Gxowa Hospital (BGH) vaccination site in Germiston. Hlongwane provides vaccination cards and screens anyone who enters the site.
Hlongwane told Wits Vuvuzela the most rewarding part of her job has been people’s gratitude. She works at a pop-up vaccination site, which many have used for the privacy that comes with it.
“It was not easy for her to go to the local vaccination site because she would have to disclose her HIV status to people she may know,” Hlongwane said of one woman.
Volunteers offer more than just their time
Samanga is also a journalist with five years of experience in the field. She saw a gap in the way vital health information is presented. “My experience as a journalist allowed me to tap into both spaces, seeing the gap where science and public health could do a lot better,” she said. “The people we do this for, the science, need to have access to this; they need to able to understand it in plain and simple terms.”
The response she has received is overwhelming, with messages dating as far back as August 15, 2021. “I wanted to present information in a fun and relatable way,” said Samanga.
She believes the vaccine is the only way for humanity to rid itself of the covid-19 pandemic: “The more people get vaccinated on a public health scale, it will give us a better shot of seeing the end of the pandemic. We have seen it with polio.”
Victoria Springbok is a master’s student in industrial occupational psychology at North-West University, Potchefstroom campus. She started a crèche at Dampad Hall, the university’s vaccination site, to cater for mothers who cannot leave their children at home over weekends. She shared the idea with management and set up a small play area for the kids while they wait for their mothers to get vaccinated.
“While the mother goes through the whole process, which takes about 45 minutes to an hour, we look after the kids,” said Springbok.
Her work as a student psychologist streamlined the process of setting up the crèche. “I have worked with developmental psychology; I am equipped to work with children,” she said.
The incentive is in giving back
Springbok said the benefit of volunteering is worth it, despite not getting paid for her services. “It’s not about incentive, it’s about doing something for the community.” She said food is given to the workers, as well as a certificate of recognition awarded to all volunteers which she feels will prepare her for the world of work.
Springbok considers herself a frontline worker because of the high amount of exposure to people when she is on site: “Placing yourself at risk for someone else’s life, you are considered a hero. Everyone, with the contribution they make towards fighting this virus, is a hero.’’
Hlongwane said, “We all need money, but with volunteering one always has to identify why and what they are volunteering for in order to do it wholeheartedly, even if you do not get paid for it.”
The news released by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) on the discovery of a new variant of the virus, C.1.2, and the looming reality of a fourth wave set to happen at the beginning of December, paints a bleak picture of our country sinking deeper down the pandemic rabbit hole. The greater efforts towards vaccination by ordinary citizens, to get us all protected, may, however, be the helping hand we need to be able to live the life we had before.
Below is a guide to any individual that is interested in volunteering their time at a vaccination site near them.
FEATURED IMAGE: A sign written “covid-19 vaccination check-in” Photo: Adobe Stock