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Dec 07
OPINION PIECE: There’s a new variant, the fourth wave is here, and the festive season is upon us – get your jab!

By: Lunga Memela (Communication Engagement Lead)

We can't deny that the December 2020 festive season was terribly depressing with masks on every day, excessive hand-washing, sanitisers galore, and practicing social distancing as our primary protection against catching and spreading novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Apart from improved hygiene practices, the globe at large felt pretty gloomy. Hard lockdowns, travel restrictions, rising death tolls and not being able to visit our loved ones was unbearable. Trolling the media and reading about the increased number of ambulances roaming the streets in aid of the ill did, from a mental wellness perspective, not paint a pretty picture at all. It's now December 2021, the past few months have seen the discovery of new strains of COVID-19, but still, we dare to say there is HOPE! How so? The answer lies in the scientific evidence of vaccines.

In an article published by the Health Systems Trust at the end of October during Global Media and Information Literacy Week, readers were reminded of the World Health Organization's (WHO's) recording of numerous vaccine success stories, spanning across pandemics and diseases including measles, varicella, meningococcus, polio, tetanus, hepatitis, pertussis, influenza and diphtheria. We're all keen to queue up for the seasonal 'flu shot' at the beginning of every winter, so might our scepticism around the COVID-19 jab not soon be overridden by the reality that this new vaccine is soon becoming the only clinical preventative norm?

Vaccine hesitancy is stifling progress

Coupled with the outbreak of any pandemic in our day and age, is what WHO has coined an infodemic. An infodemic occurs when too much information, including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments, occurs during a disease outbreak. "It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviours that can harm health. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines the public health response."

Despite mass communication and unyielding public health advocacy by the National Department of Health (NDoH) through its SA Coronavirus portal, what could still cause members of society to remain vaccine hesitant when COVID-19 statistics and the tracking of SARS-CoV-2 variants by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) are so alarming?

The NICD named the new variant of concern (VoC) B.1.1.529, Omicron. Its current earliest detection in South Africa was on 8 November in Gauteng, and Omicron has now been detected in 28 countries worldwide. Frequently asked questions for the B.1.1.529 mutated SARS-COV-2 lineage in South Africa are answered here.

The NICD advises that, "All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time. Most changes have little to no impact on the virus' properties. However, some changes may affect the virus's properties, such as how easily it spreads, the associated disease severity, or the performance of vaccines, therapeutic medicines, diagnostic tools, or other public health and social measures." The Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA) continue to monitor and assess the evolution of SARS-CoV-2.

The above reasons are why all efforts should go towards promoting the NDoH's ongoing Vooma Campaign. If you love your family and friends, then shouldn't you be taking every precaution to protect them from COVID-19?

Let's support Vooma Vaccination Week

The NDoH has dubbed 3 to 10 December Vooma Vaccination Week – a campaign aimed at encouraging as many South Africans as possible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially as we enter this year's festive season. During this time, most people travel across provinces (sometimes crammed into public transport where social distancing is not always possible) to spend their holidays with loved ones, running the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19. Super spreader events and people congregating in shopping malls and on the beachfront and other recreational areas is also likely to increase the upsurge in the fourth wave. 

Eyewitness News published an article warning that scientists on Monday stressed the characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic's fourth wave are vastly different from what was experienced with previous surges. The article said there was now a far more rapid uptick in the number of new coronavirus cases being recorded daily when compared to the pandemic's third wave."

We are living in 'a new chapter in the COVID-19 pandemic' say University of KwaZulu-Natal scientists, Professors Salim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim in their journal article published in The Lancet, speaking about the new Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant. The Abdool Karims say Omicron emerged in a COVID-19-weary world in which anger and frustration with the pandemic are rife amid widespread negative impacts on social, mental, and economic wellbeing.

"Although previous variants of concern (VoC) emerged in a world in which natural immunity from COVID-19 infections was common, this fifth VoC has emerged at a time when vaccine immunity is increasing in the world." In the case of COVID-19, the importance of timeous vaccine update and roll-out should not even be questioned.

Which part of the solution are you?

Are you an innovator, and early adopter, part of the early majority that took up the vaccine, the late majority or simply a laggard?

An illustration of Behavioural Change Theorist, Everett Rogers's Diffusion of Innovations theory.

"On Nov 25, 2021, about 23 months since the first reported case of COVID-19 and after a global estimated 260 million cases and 5.2 million deaths, a new SARS-CoV-2 VoC, Omicron, was reported. The emergence of the alpha, beta, and delta SARS-CoV-2 VoCs were associated with new waves of infections, sometimes across the entire world," say the Abdool Karims.

"One reason that Professor Salim Abdool Karim, Professor Shabir Madhi, Dr Glenda Gray, Professor Francois Venter, the amazing people at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and a host of others are so valuable to our nation is that they help the public understand what's going on," said the Daily Maverick in a recent article: Sorting the real from the rubbish and challenging those who stir the Omicron pot of fear.

"Vaccine hesitancy will not be overcome with threats — we need to use behavioural science to convince the sceptics," says the Daily Maverick in another insightful article.

The debate around vaccine hesitancy may go on for a while, but we're humans first, and all we have is our health. Why not rather protect ourselves and our loved ones this festive season by simply taking the jab? Arm yourself with the scientifically-based information. It is readily available. Avoid social media groups that spread mis- and disinformation. If you're not sure of the veracity of a post consult the


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