Good communication central to Zim’s vaccine drive

Good communication central to Zim’s vaccine drive

By Joel Mandaza

The Government, through its Information and Publicity Minister Monica Mutsvangwa, has announced that the first batch of the COVID-19 vaccine will arrive in Zimbabwe on February 15.

The vaccines, which have been a centre for debate for weeks in Zimbabwe, will be voluntary, according to Vice President Constantino Chiwenga.

Leaving the room for consent in the face of doubt was a good move. It absolves authorities of any ulterior motives in their dispensation of the jabs.

Anything compulsory would have been misinterpreted.

Despite leaving the door for choice open, the government still has some work to do in educating citizens to ensure that when people decide to take the vaccine, or not to, they are well informed.

Unfortunately, there has been misinformation from conspiracy theorists and religious leaders. There has to be focused effort to ensure people are realigned with the scientific facts.

Investing in communication strategy

Beyond the headlines in state media, government needs to invest in a communication campaign.

The campaign should provide clarity on why there is a need for a vaccine rollout.

It should put in clear terms, and simple language, the socio-economic effect COVID-19 has had in the country.

There should be numbers, broken down to the last possible degree explaining the havoc an uninterrupted C0VID-19 spell is likely to bring.

A person who is unable to sell their wares in the Central Business District because of the lockdown should be made to understand the nature of overarching damage that the sustained pandemic has had on Zimbabwe.

They should be made to understand how taking a vaccine may help with prospects of a possible return to normalcy.

A case for vaccines should be made with specific reference on how they can help ordinary people escape the claws of poverty which have been worsened by COVID-19 and the resultant lockdowns.

Government has over the years lost its social contract and goodwill.

This is not going to be an easy task, considering how the platforms they rely on have lost credibility due to incessant propaganda.

Right now, very few people trust state media as a source of news, let alone on matters relating to health.

It would help their messaging if they get ordinary citizens, with the requisite social capital to lead the campaign, other than state media and other tainted media.

Despite the hostilities that the government may bear against other platforms, for the message to have the intended reach, every platform with an audience should be able to carry content of the communication campaign.

In choosing the platforms on which the campaigns could be run, there should be a scale of believability that should be applied in the criteria.

Using experts to communicate

Another way of doing it, would be to let scientists not politicians take the lead in updating the nation.

South Africa has taken that route, by allowing Dr Zweli Mkhize, an actual medical doctor who happens to be their Health Minister to take the lead in communicating with the nation.

When they feel that the message needs a seemingly impartial voice they allow the Chairperson of the SA COVID-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee Professor Salim Abdool Karim who is a sound voice of medicine in the country.

Similarly, Zimbabwe should consider allowing National COVID-19 taskforce coordinator Dr Agnes Mahomva to be the voice of the vaccine rollout.

Having the President and his deputies speak on such an intricate issue may betray the idea of public health communication, as some of the things these political figures have promised have not come to pass.

It is difficult for people to start believing them now.

At a press conference a few weeks back, health minister, Vice President Chiwenga said the vaccine decision will be preceded by thorough scientific research in terms of safety and appropriateness.

Now that the Government has said we are going to receive 200 000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine and the government has accepted a donation from mining company Alrosa, for an unspecified number of thousand Sputnik V doses.

It is commendable that Zimbabwe is making progress in getting vaccines but it is prudent that they publish findings from the experts on the safety and suitability of the studies which VP Chiwenga spoke about.

Avoiding the South Africa mistake

Experts have been calling for genomic sequencing to ensure that we do not make the same mistake South Africa did.

They bought a million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, when it had low efficacy against the 501Y.V2 Covid-19 variant which is prevalent in the neighbouring country.

Similarly, Zimbabwe could be having more variants within its borders and Chiwenga promised the nation that they will understand these details through science before we settle on a vaccine choice.

Now that we are getting vaccines, it means the studies by our scientists must be over by now and in that regard they have to be communicated to the country clearly.

This would boost confidence in the vaccine.

#OpenCovidContracts

Another public buy-in determinant is the transparency on the procurement of the same vaccines.

People are likely to be hostile if they believe that funds were appropriated or that there was corruption in securing them.

With the manner in which some consumables related to COVID-19 have been stolen, in the past, it is better to have a #OpenCovidContracts; a scenario in which all deals entered into are published for public scrutiny.

There is a chance some may see the vaccine as an opportunity to get rich quick, it is in this spirit that authorities should be clear with citizens to avoid revulsion.

Bad sentiment around the manner in which the vaccines were acquired may negatively affect the uptake.

In addition, there has to be a database.

Those who are on the priority list like healthcare workers, should be captured properly on a database provided by the Health Services Board.

This way we ensure that those with the power do not make their farm workers skip the line ahead of critical staff who are in the line of danger.

President Mnangagwa recently said a return to normalcy is anchored on mass vaccinations; the ball is now in his court to ensure that the people under his command behave in good faith.

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