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Health department criticised over Covid-19 communication strategy

MPs grill department for not speaking effectively on the pandemic

17 August 2021 - 17:13 By amanda khoza
The health department painted a bleak picture of how, because of vaccine hesitancy, it was struggling to use up all the vaccines the country had secured. Stock photo.
The health department painted a bleak picture of how, because of vaccine hesitancy, it was struggling to use up all the vaccines the country had secured. Stock photo.
Image: Jozef Polc/123rf.com

The national health department's communication strategy took centre stage during a National Council of Provinces (NCOP) sitting on Tuesday, with MPs telling the government that it was not speaking effectively on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earlier, in its presentation to the NCOP’s select committee on health and social services, the department painted a bleak picture of how, due to vaccine hesitancy, it was struggling to use up all the vaccines that the country had secured.

The first to fire off questions to the department was the EFF’s S'lindile Luthuli, who asked:  “What is the department doing about the fake news that is being spread? Because people are scared of dying.”

The DA’s Delmaine Christians asked: “What is being done to bring more information to schools, parents and the public so that they can take the necessary precautions as the rate of Covid-19 in children has been increasing? What is the government actively doing to allay the fears of the public? Because I think that is the reason the numbers are so low.”

Committee chair Maurencia Gillion asked: “How is the department monitoring and dealing with the social media reports that are discouraging people from getting vaccinated?”

She told the department to interact more with influencers in society to drive the message.

“We need to talk to more people and have radio and TV shows where we can influence people to go for the vaccines. [If we do that] I think we will win this battle,” she said.

At the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that the national department did not have a communication budget to carry out its mass mobilisation strategy to encourage people to get vaccinated after the numbers showed a slow uptake.

After the R150m Digital Vibes scandal, which led to the axing of former minister Zweli Mkhize, the department has partnered the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and the private sector to inform the nation about the pandemic. It is also relying on its internal communication department to drive the message.

Responding, newly appointment deputy health minister Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo told MPs to use their positions of influence to encourage people in their constituencies to get vaccinated.

Dhlomo agreed with those who were emphasising the lack of communication, saying: “Minister Joe Phaahla has called on all of us to put our heads together to maximise communication, especially with the faith-based organisations and traditional leaders.”

On the increasing number of infections among schoolchildren, Dhlomo told MPs that closing schools was “a no-go area for now, despite the challenges we face.

“Our children will be far behind if we close,” he said.

Deputy director-general Dr Nicholas Crisp said the department was reporting and rebutting fake news as often as possible. “But it is extremely difficult on social media and we would like to encourage everybody to assist us by rebutting and don’t only rely on the department to do it,” he said.

Crisp concurred with the MPs that people were hesitant to take the vaccine.

“There is a lot of fear mongering. As leaders in the community, every one of us needs to make our voices heard on spreading the correct information.”

He added that the department was working very closely with GCIS and a group of people who have been designated from Business for SA, to have the private and public sector working very closely on a programme of communication.

“It is not only communication but also the way the health services responds to the needs to communities which differ from one community to another,” he said.  

He reiterated that SA does not currently have vaccines available for the use of children under the age of 18, adding that most countries are not doing that yet, although research was being conducted to address this.

Responding to questions about the fourth wave and the rise in infections in KwaZulu-Natal after the riots, deputy director-general Dr Anban Pillay said the country was still in the third wave.

Pillay said the positivity rate was sitting at 20% and in some provinces over 30%.

On the riots, Pillay said the health department in KZN and Gauteng were managing the situation.