by Farai Mutsaka | The Associated Press
HARARE, Zimbabwe – For months, Acholo Jani was told to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because it could have saved her life. Afraid of possible side effects, he was hesitant. But as soon as she was told that it would save her job, Jani got in line.
The 43-year-old mechanic’s employer is one of many Zimbabweans needing a vaccine for its 500,000 employees, including the government. This separates the southern African nation from nearly every other on the continent, where the most immediate challenge is still to obtain adequate doses.
In contrast, Zimbabwe says it has enough supplies for now, mostly bought from China, but that hesitation is stalling its campaign – a problem that has plagued other African countries as well, in part. Driven by a general distrust of the authorities. But Zimbabwe’s strategy is raising questions about worrisome rights.
Critics say Zimbabwe’s rollout has not been up to the task, unlike wealthy countries that use mandates. Vaccination centers sometimes run out of supply, and poor urban townships and rural areas have often experienced dose shortages in recent months.
What’s more, he says, it is cruel to risk the livelihoods of those who are some of the world’s most vulnerable and are already suffering during the pandemic.
“The Zimbabwean government should first focus on ensuring that vaccines are equally available to all people without any barriers,” said Human Rights Watch’s Southern Africa director Deva Mwinga.
Mawinga called for vaccine hesitation to go away “in a way that builds public confidence and confidence in vaccines without the use of force.”
But a government known for being authoritarian is set to double down. It already requires vaccines at places of worship and has suggested expanding the mandate for public buses – an important mode of transport for the country’s poor. Access to informal markets, on which millions of people depend to buy or sell goods, may also be restricted.
Those measures would effectively make the vaccine a requirement for the vast majority of Zimbabwean adults, even with informal jobs covering two-thirds of the working population unlikely to be touched by employer mandates.
At Jani’s workplace, a vaccination card, a pocket-sized booklet with the government’s emblem on the front, is now “Your Gate Pass”.
“There’s nowhere to hide,” he said while waiting for his vaccine on a dusty road outside a clinic in the Mufakos township of the capital Harare.
Jani eventually got her first shot – after joining the line at 5 a.m. and waiting seven hours – but others are not so lucky.
Some have waited for hours, only to be told that the vaccination center was closing early due to limited supplies or a lack of staff. Those eligible for a second shot have also complained of being turned away from the centers giving priority to those taking the first dose. A new batch of vaccines has arrived recently, and the lines seem to be getting shorter.
About 15% of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are fully vaccinated – well above the overall African rate of 4% but far from the government’s target of 60%. The country has so far received 12 million doses, mainly the Chinese Sinoform and Sinovac vaccines, which require two shots. According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, just over 5 million have been administered.
Peter Mutassa, president of Zimbabwe’s largest labor federation, said the government was primarily to blame for not vaccinating enough people.
“Workers are trying to get vaccinated,” he said.
Mutasa’s organization, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, is fighting for workers’ mandates in court, one of the only organizations in the country that has been publicly opposed. Other groups are unwilling to speak out for fear of being labeled anti-vaccination.
Mutasa isn’t against the shots, but said linking them to employment means jobs will be lost “unnecessarily” after the economy collapsed 10 years ago with record levels of inflation. is precious and many people live in precarious existence. Nearly half of Zimbabwe’s population lives on less than $1.90 a day.
The mandate would lead to “genocide”, he said.
Dr Agnes Mahomva, the government’s chief coordinator of the COVID-19 response, defended the mandates, saying they are aimed at “protecting all” and arguing that they remain voluntary in a way.
“If someone doesn’t want to be vaccinated, no one is going to catch and vaccinate them at their home,” she said.
But Mutasa said workers desperate for a paycheck have “no way of saying no.”
According to Johns Hopkins, Zimbabwe has had about 130,000 virus cases and about 4,600 deaths. While those tolls, as elsewhere, are likely to be low, the virus has not weighed particularly heavily in Zimbabwe, a fact that may have contributed to the lack of urgency in vaccination.
Dr Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners Association of Zimbabwe, says the resulting mandate is significant.
Marissa said, “If you have to make any progress you have to force people.” “Human rights are important, but public health takes precedence.”
Marissa believes other African countries will follow suit, as the biggest challenge on the continent is from getting vaccines to getting them into the arms of the hesitant. Given the outcry from African leaders who called for more vaccine equity at the United Nations last week – a situation the Namibian president called “vaccine apartheid” – that moment seems a way off.
Even Zimbabwe’s neighbor South Africa, which has by far the continent’s highest number of COVID-19 deaths at more than 87,000 and has a more urgent need to vaccinate people, may shy away from any government directive. has gone.
Instead, South Africa is moving towards incentives. President Cyril Ramaphosa said that for the first time since the start of the pandemic, full immunization may soon be allowed to participate in sporting events and concerts.
But some private companies have indicated that mandates are coming. Health insurance and financial services giant Discovery, which employs more than 14,500 employees in South Africa, said it would require all of its people to be vaccinated by early next year to enter its offices.
While many countries around the world are facing debate over the mandate, the stakes are often higher in Zimbabwe.
Jani cannot go back to work until she is fully vaccinated. That means doing whatever he can to sell on the streets for at least a few weeks, missing out on his usual salary, asking “How are you going to survive in this country without a vaccination card?” He asked. He must find a way.
Associated Press writer Mogomotsi Magom in Johannesburg contributed to this report.