JANICE HEALING: Getting vaccinated has given me hope for my country

OPINION

It’s been a truly horrendous few weeks for South Africa. Still reeling from the insidious COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly third wave, we were stunned to be confronted with lawlessness and violence that has claimed more than 200 lives and endangered economic survival for hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens.

Even before the arrival of the coronavirus, South Africa was not always an easy place to call home. Socio-economic inequality continues to haunt too high a percentage of the population, gender-based violence is rife, the economy is shaky and corruption and greed pervasive.

But what makes our country so very special and unique are its people. And never was that more evident than when communities banded together against those rioting and looting, when they cleaned up after the chaos and sent supplies and assistance to those areas worst affected by the criminality.

The strong yet gentle spirit of our people was again demonstrated to me when I went to receive my COVID-19 vaccination on Sunday.

Ever since I heard that registration would soon open up to those aged 35 to 49, I have been excitedly waiting for the chance to book my spot in the queue. Too many people I know have been impacted by this disease. In fact, I don’t think there are any of us who can say that we don’t have a family member, a friend or a colleague who has not been infected. And sadly, too many who have lost loved ones.

So, when I heard that registrations for my age group had opened up on the evening of 14 July, instead of on 15 July as officially announced, I added my details on the government system and was reassured to know that, come 1 August, I would be able to book an appointment. When I then read on 16 July that it was possible to find early bookings on the Discovery and Dis-Chem sites, I went online again. The Discovery system indicated that I was not yet eligible to book an appointment, but I was thrilled when the Dis-Chem site allowed me to book for 28 July. I thought to myself, “Okay, just a week and a half to go and then you will be safer”.

On 17 July, the Gauteng Department of Health announced it was opening up vaccination sites over the weekend and urged more eligible people to be vaccinated. These sites include the Phola Park Community Healthcare Centre in Thokoza, the Daveyton Main Community Healthcare Centre, the Kobie Muller Hall at the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in Germiston, and the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital Recreational Centre in Diepkloof. After my editor excitedly shared that she had been to Bara and was able to be vaccinated without an appointment, I decided to head to the facility nearest to where I live, the Bertha Gxowa Hospital in the Germiston city centre.

I arrived at 11:45am, was able to find parking outside and the car guard told me where to go for vaccinations. I passed a relatively long queue and as I headed towards two officials to ask where to go first, a man in the queue kindly pointed me towards another official handing out forms. She told me to complete it and directed me towards the end of the queue.

As I have often experienced in queues in South Africa, whether it be at Home Affairs or outside grocery stores during the hard lockdown, within minutes the woman in front of me and I started chatting. Despite the fact that she lived five minutes away from Bara, she had opted to come to Germiston as she hoped the queues would be shorter. As we were talking and filling in our forms (which required our name, ID number and the usual checklist of whether we had been in contact with someone who was COVID-positive in the last 14 days, were we feeling any symptoms, etc), a man, whom I assumed to be a health official from the hospital, began engaging with us in the queue, answering our many questions.

Yes, he replied, there would definitely be enough vaccines for all of us. No, you didn’t need to have already registered to get the jab. He also apologised for the long queue, saying they had allowed one queue to form in the morning without separating people into the registered and unregistered, and that it would be unfair to change it mid-process. But, he added, that they would be implementing two queues as of the next day. He then took out his iPad and, starting at the end of the queue, began registering those who had not yet been able to do so.

Unbeknownst to me at this stage, that man was Motalatale Modiba, chief director of communications at the Gauteng Department of Health. I only realised this when he was interviewed by a TV crew who arrived some time later. Modiba had not been assisting the people in the queue because he knew that I was a member of the media and he wanted to be seen to be helping; I am 100% behind the scenes and not a known personality. He was helping because he genuinely wanted to be of service. This seemed to be the case with all the other officials assisting in the process. Yes, they were visibly tired, but unfailingly professional and helpful.

At one point, I observed an elderly woman being escorted by an official to the very front of the queue. And I didn't witness a single murmur of complaint from the people behind her.

Once the queue outside had progressed to a large marquee tent, our hands were sanitised and we entered the tent in groups of five. We were directed to five empty chairs at the back of the tent. As those in the front of tent moved to the next stage, so we moved in fives to the row in front of us. The official taking our temperatures was full of energy, cracking jokes and lightening what could have been quite a sombre mood.

Once I had moved through the tent, I presented my form, ID book and voucher number (which I got when booking my appointment on the Dis-Chem site) to one of two women at a table. She took down my details, had me sign what I think was a register and directed me to another queue. Those who already had voucher numbers were directed to chairs in the foyer of a hall and those without to a short queue to be given voucher numbers. They then joined us in the foyer. Here we were given vaccination record cards on which we filled in our names and ID number.

The next stage was what we had all been waiting for. Once again in groups of five, we were directed into the hall where healthcare workers were waiting to assist us. After my documents were checked and I answered a few medical questions, my healthcare worker added my vaccination number, make of vaccine (Pfizer) and batch number to my vaccination card, which she then signed. She disinfected an area on my upper left arm with a swab and administered the vaccine. A tiny prickling sensation and it was done!

She then pointed me towards a seating area outside where she said I should wait for 15 minutes just in case I experienced any adverse side-effects. I sat there in the bright South African sun and if I hadn’t been wearing my mask, you would have seen the biggest smile I have smiled in many months. After more than a year and a half of living in fear of the global pandemic, I was vaccinated.

It was now 1:47pm. In my mind two hours is not a long time to wait for what is the first layer of protection against a deadly enemy. It will not make me bulletproof against COVID, and neither will the second dose I get on 29 August. But they will ensure that when I get infected (which medical authorities say is highly likely for a majority of the population), it will be a less severe infection and I should not require hospitalisation.

Knowing this has filled me with the kind of hope I have not been able to muster for a while. Hope that, by the end of this year, it may just be possible for us to gather with those we love to celebrate the festive season. Hope that, as more and more of us are vaccinated, we will be protecting our people and our country from even further devastation. Hope that we can emerge from this terrible time as a nation more united against a common enemy. Hope that this too shall eventually pass.

Janice Healing is chief online sub-editor at Eyewitness News.

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