Fear of the vaccine jab infects frontline health-care workers

24 January 2021 - 00:00 By Sipokazi Fokazi
Barry Schoub
Barry Schoub
Image: Supplied

Nurse Chantel Williams* will be among the first to be offered a Covid-19 vaccine, but she says she will refuse it.

“I see patients dying from the virus in our hospital every day so I know how vicious the virus is. But I’m not putting myself on the line to be vaccinated first. It is too risky,” the Cape Town mother of three told the Sunday Times this week.

“I feel that the process of developing the vaccines was rushed and I am suspicious of the science behind it. I am the breadwinner in my family and should I develop any adverse side effects my children will have no one to support them.”

Williams’ concerns are far from unusual: a Western Cape health department poll found only 54% of health workers want to be vaccinated. Another 26% were unsure and 19% said they would decline.

Provincial head of health Keith Cloete said he wasn’t surprised by the widespread scepticism but was encouraged by “the optimism and hope that suffering will stop” among those eager to be vaccinated.

“For me, that is the most poignant message that comes through as part of the healing process for health-care workers and what they’ve experienced,” he said.

Fiona Martins*, another Cape Town nurse, who is a Covid-19 survivor, said she would also decline the jab. “If I survived Covid-19, why should I take a vaccine that I don’t even know what it contains? I’m not willing to be a guinea pig,” she said.

“As health-care workers we have been battling on our own, sometimes having difficulties getting PPE [personal protective equipment] and the government didn’t care so much. Suddenly now we must be prioritised for a vaccine? I don’t trust this whole vaccination process. The leaders must take the vaccine first and let’s see how they respond to it.”

Sipho Lubisi*, who works in a Covid-19 ward, said he won’t be at the front of the queue for a vaccine. “I feel the process is too rushed and I would rather wait and see how others are reacting to it,” he said.

Mother of one Maria Adams* said health-care workers have fears like everyone else. “No one is communicating anything to us about this vaccine, but I hear that as early as next month it will be rolled out among us and there may be consequences if we refuse to take it,” she said.

“Maybe MPs should take a lead and publicly take the vaccine, and we see how they respond to it. Then we can talk about rolling it out to health-care workers. I am very suspicious, particularly because this is a new vaccine and we don’t know of anyone who has taken it before.”

Barry Schoub, chair of the vaccine ministerial advisory committee, said the health workers’ doubts were reasonable. “Once everything is communicated to them, chances are they will change their minds. This hesitancy shows that we need more education and more communication about the new vaccine before conspiracy theories get out of hand.”

Sibongiseni Delihlazo, spokesperson for the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA, said while the union condoned the vaccination of frontline workers, “this does not negate the constitutional right of every South African to choose to either take or not to take the vaccine if they so wish”.

*Not their real names