Social media spurs youth vaccine reluctance

Many young people between the ages of 18 and 35 are sceptical of the Covid-19 jab because of stories circulating online about negative side effects and mixed messages from officials.

With Omicron driving high rates of Covid-19 infection in South Africa, there is a renewed urgency to the government, grassroots organisations, unions and academic institutions urging residents to get vaccinated. But some young adults are sceptical of the vaccine, citing conspiracy theories circulating online as the main reason for their reluctance.

Tshegofatso Chosane, 27, falls into this group between the ages of 18 and 35. “I have not vaccinated yet. The reason is because there are a lot of rumours about this vaccine. And when you look into the social media, people say so many things about it,” says Chosane, an electrical engineer assistant from Mamelodi West (A3) in Pretoria. “Also, because I heard the president say it is not compulsory … I’m like, let me think about it. Maybe later I’ll take the jab.” 

17 September 2021: Siphesihle Innocent Ntsimango encourages other young people to get vaccinated.

But Siphesihle Innocent Ntsimango, 28, says he got the Pfizer jabs because he wanted to protect himself from the coronavirus. “I already brought my grandparents to be injected with the booster doses,” explains the resident of Masibambane village in KwaNobuhle, Kariega. “They are fully vaccinated and never experienced any side effects. The government made it possible for us to get the Pfizer for free. We should take advantage of it. I’m aware of the myths that are spreading like wildfire out there. That doesn’t worry me.”

Minister of Health Joe Phaahla announced that the country had entered into a fourth wave of infections at a virtual press briefing and warned about a significant increase in cases. He said the curve, which depicts the rise in infections, is steep, “much steeper than any other rise or curve we have seen in the previous three waves”. 

On Monday 13 December, data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases put new infections over 13 000 for the previous 24 hours at the time of publication.

Fear, fact and fiction

“I’m scared to get vaccinated,” says Zukhanye Mahlaza, 20. “When I see and read things on social media, I become more nervous.” Mahlaza, a network marketing student from NU 15 in Mdantsane, East London, says she has seen many stories circulating about people having strokes or only having two years or days to live, or becoming breathless after getting the vaccine. 

“I took a decision not to be vaccinated because I do not trust [what is being said about the] Pfizer [vaccine],” she says.

Her friend and neighbour, Namhla Madikane, 27, a former public administration student who is currently unemployed, got vaccinated in September. “The reason I decided to go to the clinic was … that almost all my family members did not experience any pain after getting the injection. Initially, I was sceptical, but later I changed my mind. 

“I never had any light headaches or dizziness, which most [conspiracy] theorists talked about. The rumours were meant to confuse and discourage us because we read everything on social media.”

17 September 2021: From left, Namhla Madikane and Zukhanye Mahlaza are concerned by the stories they read on social media, although Madikane changed her mind and got vaccinated in September.

In Dyamala village in Alice, three young men say there is little education about the vaccine in their area. 

“Our government spent more resources on elections and less on empowering the youth in poor communities to understand more about this Covid situation,” says Shaun Daweti, 26, who lives with his mother and two sisters in a one-room mud house. “During election season, it was all about who got the highest votes. They campaigned in large numbers and begged our parents to wear their organisation’s T-shirts.  

“I don’t feel like getting the jab. Unfortunately, I have not taken that decision. Also, when I watch TV, there’s a big debate about Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. The audio and visual messages we receive every day discourage us as youngsters. That’s why instead we end up playing soccer and not bother about going to the clinic,” he says. 

Two evils

Sikhokele Makhapela, 24, agrees with Daweti. “Most of the youth aren’t taking the message seriously. Some of us didn’t even get tested for Covid,” he laughs.  

But their friend and the only one in the group who still goes to school, Xolisa Geza, 22, says it’s a lack of money that stops him from getting vaccinated. “It is wise to be protected from this dangerous sickness, but some of us are struggling to raise R44 per person to go to town and come back home. 

“We have no money. Instead, others risk their lives … by walking more than 10km through the bush to reach Ntselamanzi and get to the Victoria hospital. By the time you arrive there, you are hungry and tired. But girls cannot do that because they would become victims of rapists while trying to [protect] themselves from this terrible disease,” says Geza.

Ayanda de Bruyn, 22, lives with his ailing grandmother in Fingo, Makhanda. He is scared of the side effects, he says. “From what I gathered so far on social media, people suffer from headaches, struggle to walk and others have fever. That’s why I want to observe and read thoroughly before taking a decision. If it is not dangerous, sure, I may go there.” 

21 September 2021: Ayanda de Bruyn fears potential side effects from the vaccine and has not made a decision about whether or not to get vaccinated.

Tholakele Ratazayo, 25, from Dukathole village near Mthatha is puzzled by the reinfection rate of Omicron and blames officials for spreading mixed messages. “The president said a few months ago that people would not be forced to take the vaccine, but at the same time told the nation that those who have not taken the jab won’t be able to enter certain places. I’m concerned how these Covid-19 stages are foreseen by experts because I heard about the fourth wave almost two months ago. 

“How do they know that there would be the second wave or fourth wave? It is said that even the individuals who have taken the vaccine won’t survive Omicron. I personally don’t see the need to get the dose if one would be infected anyway,” says Ratazayo.

The World Health Organization (WHO) explains waves during a pandemic as, “the virus has to be brought under control and cases have to fall substantially. Then for a second wave to start, you need a sustained rise in infections.”

The WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on Wednesday 8 December that Omicron had “spread to 57 countries” and that the WHO was expecting this number to rise. He added that “in South Africa, the number of Omicron cases is increasing quickly”. Cases of serious infection remain low, though, and South African doctors say vaccines are likely keeping patients out of hospital.

19  September 2021: From left, Shaun Daweti, Sikhokele Makhapela Sikhokele Makhapela and Xolisa Geza from Dyamala village in Alice, Eastern Cape.
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