How Covid activism can persuade vaccine sceptics

Cape Flats activist Joanie Fredericks has made significant contributions to Tafelsig in her 21 years there, including setting up a Covid information drive and a vaccination pop-up site.

Mitchells Plain has one of the lowest statistics of vaccinated people in the country. A community-organised vaccine pop-up site in Tafelsig, an area within the township, might change this.

Tafelsig is about 30 minutes away from the Cape Town CBD and lies within the Cape Flats. Unemployment and crime, problems that have always plagued the area, continue to rise.

16 September 2021: Residents’ leaders in collaboration with emergency services and the Western Cape government have started rolling out pop-up vaccination sites in a bid to make getting a jab more convenient.

Joanie Fredericks, 52, says she and fellow activists decided to go from door to door, encouraging residents in the area to get vaccinated. This drive was quick to yield results as around 120 people were vaccinated in one day, on 16 September. 

A lack of access to information was the main reason many people were hesitant to get vaccinated, Fredericks said. She is proud of the drive and hopes it can spark a conversation – and is willing to lead it.

Tackling doubt

Now, Fredericks is calling for more pop-up vaccination sites of the kind they started in Mitchells Plain. This, she said, will bring the vaccines to the people and a different narrative and image.

“It was important that people see that it was not just one community leader pushing an agenda. I’m saying to people, give yourself an opportunity to listen to the experts, ask your questions. At least you must have the opportunity. I want to know that the person who got the vaccine did it because they wanted it.” 

She said vaccine hesitancy started at the beginning of the pandemic, when there was a lack of proper information sharing.

16 September 2021: Candice Davids receives her Covid-19 vaccine.

“The first time that we heard about Covid was when it was on the TV. [It was] in a language that a lot of people didn’t understand. From there it just went downhill. If the community didn’t even have proper information about Covid how are they going to have information [about the vaccine]? This whole thing was handled wrong. I still believe that there can be a turnaround now, if we start using ordinary community members to bring the message across in a way that the community can understand.”

She added that the vaccination conversation needs to be easily accessible. “One of the things that the government does that doesn’t work is they like having their things in some community hall. In order for you to enter there you must go through gates and security and all of this. This is nice, it’s open and everyone can see it and anyone can go in if they want to. Anyone can go and stand on a corner and watch from far, there is nothing hidden. This vaccination conversation must be out in the open. I think this is why a lot of people came.”

Choosing life over fear

Lisa Simon, 23, is one of the area’s residents who decided to get the jab. She said more initiatives like this were needed. “We all have families at home and we’re all worried about [them] regarding this Covid situation. At the end of the day, this is the cause for us to get the jab. It is safer to have the jab ‘cause we also have elderly people at home. This is more convenient. It was quite easy, they explained everything to me. I’m feeling normal and excited that it’s done.”

Simon’s mother, Jolene Galant, 47, was also there. She was nervous about getting her jab at first, she said. “I registered and I got a date in August but it was in Newlands. I live in Mitchells Plain. I’m concerned about my kids at home. I have younger kids that are still in primary school. I decided that because we’ve got this event close by, it’s convenient; and I thought, ‘Why not? Let’s go for it. It will protect them and you will be safe.’ I heard about it but that made me not want to come [at first]. You can’t force people, it’s their choice. But I’m doing it because I want to be safe and protect my kids.”

Another resident, Pamela Anthony, 63, said she was on her way to the clinic for her second jab when she heard music. She immediately went to the pop-up site. “I thought, there’s no need for me to go to the clinic, this is just behind me and this is why I’m here. They should have done it a long time ago because you know how people are. Now this open place, everybody’s passing by, you can just come and ask for information and they will register you. It’s so easy. This is for free, it’s less than an hour, then you’re done. After your jab you sit there for 15 minutes and then you go back and do your normal stuff. That’s how it is.”

16 September 2021: Pamela Anthony is shown to the observation area after receiving her vaccination at a pop-up vaccination site in Mitchells Plain.

Anthony did not pay attention to the conspiracy theories about vaccines, she says. “I don’t look at those things. I just do my thing. I just pray and say God you know best. People who don’t want to listen, [you are], at the end of the day, gambling with your life. People, come for your jab. We are sitting here by the park, come here and get your injection and then you go home again. I’m 63 years old but I’m happy. I don’t listen to negative stuff.”

It is, however, not entirely rosy in Tafelsig. There are still many sceptical residents. For example, Joseph Williams, 63, from the Mitchells Plain Community Policing Forum, said there were so many stories going around about the vaccine. The numbers of those vaccinated could be much higher but too many remain hesitant.

“Most of the people that we talked to this morning actually refused to take [the vaccine]. [It is] the stories that they hear. I have two injections and I am still standing here and nothing happened to me. I don’t know why the people believe all these stories and that’s why in Tafelsig the percentage is so low,” said Williams.

A record of activism

For Tafelsig’s relative vaccination-drive success, Fredericks credits, in part, the lessons she learnt from her long history in activism and community engagement. She also acknowledged the community’s coming together in the early days of the pandemic.

Fredericks, from Grabouw, a rural area in the Western Cape, said she was always meant to do community work. She also got some of her fight, she says, from her mother, at some point a shop steward.

Fredericks worked for a while on farms in Grabouw, fighting for the rights of farmworkers. She moved to Tafelsig 21 years ago. 

“When I first came here, I came for a weekend with friends. That very same day, my first experience was when somebody robbed me of my cell phone. I told myself I’m not coming back. Lo and behold the next weekend I was back. When I first came here, I got introduced to this notion that this is a very dangerous place. There was lots of gang activity, rape – basically anything that is dangerous to a community,” said Fredericks. 

“As I came here more, and when I finally decided to live here, I realised that I can actually make a difference. I remember when I said to myself that I made a commitment to myself to put Tafelsig on the map for the right reasons. This place was always in the media, it was always bad… There’s still a hell of a lot of nonsense going on but, overall, if we compare the good stories against how it used to be, I am proud of the difference that we made,” she added.

16 September 2021: From left, Emergency Medical Services personnel Bradley van Ster and Martinel Stronkhorst get everything ready before taking the Covid-19 vaccines to residents at a pop-up vaccination site in Mitchells Plain.

In April 2020, Fredericks formed a community action network called Tafelsig CAN in response to Covid-19 and its subsequent lockdowns. It was part of a larger network of groups called Cape Town Together. 

“[Covid-19] has fucked us up in a lot of ways but it has also done good. It created solid friendships between people that were never supposed to meet in the first place… In two days, we raised so much food that it touched the ceiling. Organisations locked their doors. That’s when people like myself had to open new doors. We were able to bring different groups of people from different walks of life together so that we could support each other. Also [we were able] to work together to fight this thing called Covid and hunger. 

“What was so exciting was that at a time when many people crashed and burned, Tafelsig and communities such as ours learnt to find steel within us. Instead of relying on government or outside people we first looked inwards. This is the biggest lesson that we learnt. It doesn’t take money, resources or material things to make a community. It takes goodwill and the willingness of people to work.”

It was belief in people’s goodness that spurred Fredericks and her community leaders to set up Tafelsig CAN, the pop-up site and the vaccination drive. So far, she has been proven right. Her big hope is that the initiatives will banish doubt so that most residents will be vaccinated. 

16 September 2021: Lisa Simon receives her Covid-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in Mitchells Plain.
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