Fear, fake news, registration process affecting vaccination of elderly: Kubayi-Ngubane

Acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has urged South Africans not to fall for fake news about Covid-19. File photo.
Acting health minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane has urged South Africans not to fall for fake news about Covid-19. File photo.

Fear driven by fake news as well as poor accessibility to the government's online registration portal — the electronic vaccination data system (EVDS) — are some of the reasons why SA's elderly are hesitant to get vaccinated.

This was revealed by acting minister of health Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane during her first parliamentary sitting before the portfolio committee on health on Thursday. 

Kubayi-Ngubane was appointed as acting minister in the portfolio after President Cyril Ramaphosa placed minister Zweli Mkhize on special leave pending a Special Investigating Unit probe into the alleged irregular awarding of a R150m tender to Digital Vibes.

The acting minister, who has hit the ground running since taking over, said she received a report on Wednesday night by a researcher from the University of Johannesburg.

The research looked at some of the reasons there was a low registration number in phase 2 of the government’s national vaccination rollout in the category of over-60s now under way.

“Key issues that are coming out, in terms of our public, is that there is fear of vaccination and that is informed by fake news and misinformation. We need to ensure and intensify in countering the message that goes out to the public and ensure that what is real, serious and truthful, is what goes out,” she said.

Another issue was accessibility to the government’s online registration portal by senior citizens.

“Many of them would have used their children’s devices. For example, I would have registered my mother, so that is what we are picking up and hence some of the provinces are now moving to ensure that we have community healthcare workers who go into the houses to register the senior citizens.”

Apart from the procurement of vaccines process which has been marred by glitches, Kubayi-Ngubane admitted that there were hiccups in the system which had slowed the entire vaccination process.

This week she met Johnson & Johnson executives and MECs from various provinces to establish an adequate and co-ordinated national response to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Ramaphosa placed the country on alert level 3 amid a surge of Covid-19 infections, particularly in Gauteng. Ramaphosa extended the curfew and limited the hours alcohol may be sold and reduced the numbers of  people allowed at gatherings.

Kubayi-Ngubane said the government was concerned about the increasing number of infections that had resulted in a third wave.

“When we look at last night’s report, Gauteng is our major concern. We can say that the fires are burning in Gauteng.”

She slammed community members who were seen on television protesting, despite Ramaphosa placing the country on alert level 3, and called on law-enforcement agencies to assist with ensuring that the new regulations were adhered to.

“You do not know the status of [the] majority of the people that you are gathering with, they could be positive [with Covid-19] and — as you are running, marching and protesting, burning things that you are holding with your hands, you are breathing into each other because you have close contact with each other — you are compromising not only yourself but your families, loved ones and members of the community.”

In a swipe seemingly aimed at EFF leader Julius Malema, who on Wednesday told his supporters at a packed Youth Day rally to boycott the government’s calls and Covid-19 regulations, Kubayi-Ngubane said political parties were also guilty.

“I believe they are also acting irresponsibly because when we are leaders, part of the responsibility that we have is to ensure that we protect the lives of those who support us and ensure that we are in positions of leadership.

“When we say we are in trouble in terms of numbers and when we say that there is a need for us to move from a particular level to another, I hope South Africans will stop these  conspiracy theories but understand that this is done from the point of a scientific analysis.”

While the government’s decisions were based on scientific projections and models, she pleaded with South Africans to continue with non-pharmaceutical interventions like wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitising and washing hands.

“The clinical methods remain critical. We had a meeting with MECs across the provinces where we were re-emphasising the issue of testing, tracing, isolating and treating.”

She said the department was monitoring the availability of beds and oxygen tanks.

On field hospitals, Kubayi-Ngubane said, MECs reported that during the first and second waves, they were not used to full capacity.

“Therefore they felt that right now, to put [up] the field hospitals might still be premature. So we will continue with the capacity in terms of the hospitals and pay attention to what needs to be done in both private and public hospitals.”

On the vaccine rollout, Kubayi-Ngubane said there were “quite a number of things that are concerning us”.

MECs told the minister that the removal of nurses from clinics to assist with the vaccination rollout at various sites was compromising the quality of services.

The low number of senior citizens registering on the government's online portal was also a concern.

“We have found that sometimes a person would register [on the EVDS] and then the SMS is delayed in informing them when to vaccinate. I had a meeting with the team that is looking at the issues. We are now paying attention to how we can reduce anxiety among senior citizens in terms of being registered and the delay in getting vaccinated.”

Kubayi-Ngubane said senior citizens will not be turned away from vaccination sites.

The Limpopo province has implemented a successful co-ordinated approach of dealing with walk-ins and online registration. This, she said, was going to be presented to the ministerial advisory committee on vaccines to possibly replicate in all provinces.  

Senior citizens also complained about receiving two different return dates for their second jab of the Pfizer vaccine.

“When we started the rollout, especially on the Pfizer vaccine where it’s two jabs, it was initially indicated that it would be 21 days [waiting period] between the first and second jabs. Later, global regulation came out and said it's now 42 days.”

She pleaded with the younger generation to assist the elderly to return on the correct date “as the first date would have been on the basis of 21 days and the second one is on the basis of 42 days”.

On Wednesday, Kubayi-Ngubane said she sat in a ministerial advisory committee on social behaviour which found that the registration numbers were extremely low.

“When we look at the numbers in terms of the population of 60 years and older, in terms of what Stats SA has provided, we have about 5.5 million and when you look at our registration and vaccination, we can see that we are not yet at 60%, which is worrying us.”