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Harare, Zimbabwe – Simanga Musarurwa, a 57-year old mother of six, was reluctant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. But then, tragedy struck nearby.
“My neighbour and some people I know from my neighbourhood got infected and died of COVID-19,” said Musarurwa, sitting on a concrete slab outside Warren Park Polyclinic, a facility located west of Harare.
She was among a crowd of some 40 people who had gathered at the facility’s gate waiting to be allowed in and receive a shot.
“I want to protect myself from COVID-19,” says Chipo Chiwiza, 35, who was on her third visit to the clinic, one of the many vaccination centres around the Zimbabwean capital.
Now, more and more Zimbabweans want to be vaccinated – but this was not always the case.
The arrival from China of 200,000 donated Sinopharm jabs in February had been met with widespread scepticism in Zimbabwe. Various posts on social media fuelled the hesitancy, contributing to a low uptake of the vaccines.
By the end of March, only 76,995 people had received the first dose of the two-shot vaccine.
“Our vaccination trends since the start of the programme have followed a largely recognised trend, where people at first are largely sceptical and hesitant to be vaccinated,” said epidemiologist Dr Grant Murewanhema.
“This is usually driven by a number of factors such as rumours, myths, misconception, safety concerns, uncertainties and lack of accurate information, but also availability of the vaccines,” he added.
“With time, as more people become vaccinated without any serious safety concerns, the public becomes more confident, and demand for vaccines gradually begins to go up,” he said.
Indeed, by the end of April, the vaccination numbers had increased to 414,735. At the end of May, they were 675,678 and a month later, 777,161.
Now, as many as 60,000 people are being vaccinated daily, bringing the total number of people who have received their first dose above one million.
‘Harsh third wave’
But accessibility and availability of vaccines would be deciding factors of the vaccination drive’s success going forward, health experts say.
Zimbabwe has authorised the use of the Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, as well as Russia’s Sputnik V and India’s Covaxin. To date, the country of about 14 million people has received 4.2 million vaccines and it is expecting to soon receive 1.5 million doses.
Between May and June, Zimbabwe could not adequately supply vaccinations as demand surged alongside the emergence of a rapidly spreading third wave of infections driven by two highly contagious variants of the coronavirus: the Beta variant first detected in South Africa and the Delta variant first identified in India.
COVID-19 cases currently stand at almost 86,000, more than double compared with the figures last month, while deaths have reached 2,697.
“With a harsh third wave that has claimed the lives of hundreds, the public has gradually started believing in prevention and shunning conspiracy theories,” said Murewanhema. “Various awareness campaigns by different stakeholders in public health, government or non-government, have increased the build-up in vaccine confidence.”
Zimbabwe is in the grips of a severe economic crisis characterised by a shortage of foreign exchange, high inflation, low manufacturing production and high unemployment.
Its healthcare system, one of the poorest in Africa, was overwhelmed by a second wave of COVID-19 infections in late 2020 and early 2021, with many patients failing to get beds and dying at home.
So far, official figures show that hospitals are currently coping with infections, with only 790 people admitted to various hospitals from the more than 28,000 active cases in the country.
But some of those turning up at vaccination centres cite the dire state of the country’s healthcare system as a key factor in their decision to get a shot.
“The increase in COVID-19 cases forced me to get vaccinated,” said Michelle Karanda, another person waiting outside the Warren Park Polyclinic on July 12, when the facility ran out of paper stationery to issue vaccination cards.
“If I get infected with COVID-19, I will die at public hospitals. This is a public clinic and I have not yet gotten my vaccine since morning. I guess you can imagine what would happen if I had COVID-19 and I needed help at public hospitals. Here is the evidence.”
The government has set a target of 100,000 daily vaccinations to achieve herd immunity by the end of the year.
Medical experts say this is doable but warn that Zimbabwe is still very far from hitting such a target.
“We need to overcome vaccine hesitancy and vaccine misinformation to achieve this,” said Dr Norman Matara, secretary of Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.