BY MOSES MATENGA/VANNESA GONYE/BLESSED MHLANGA
GOVERNMENT yesterday warned citizens to brace for more movement restrictions in light of the highly fatal and fast-spreading South African variant of the COVID-19 virus, which now constitutes 61% of new infections in the country.
This has raised questions about the safety of the Chinese-donated Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine set to be rolled out in the country starting tomorrow.
In a post-Cabinet Press statement yesterday, government said security checks would be further intensified throughout the country in order to enforce compliance with the prescribed lockdown measures.
“Cabinet wishes to inform the nation that results of the genomic sequencing recently conducted indicate that the type of COVID-19 virus that the nation had in 2020 has receded. There is now a 61% dominance of the new South African variant of the COVID-19 virus, which spreads faster and has a higher fatality rate,” the statement read.
“Accordingly, the nation now needs to be more vigilant than before and adhere to COVID-19 prevention and control measures. Security personnel have, therefore, been directed to intensify monitoring and enforcement in order to enhance compliance.”
Government said the inoculation of critical staff using the Sinopharm vaccine donated by the Chinese government would commence tomorrow and would be voluntary and free.
“The aim of the first phase is to vaccinate 22%, 18,4% under phase two; and 18,4% under phase three, thereby yielding a vaccinated population of nearly 60% of the population,” the Cabinet statement read.
But health practitioners, teachers, and trade unionists yesterday said they feared being used as guinea pigs to prove the efficacy of the vaccine amid reports that it had caused health complications in some countries where it has been rolled out.
Government says it is prioritising healthcare workers, border and airport security staff, State security staff and Agritex officials under its first inoculation phase, with the elderly — 60 years and above, the chronically ill, prisoners and refugees to be covered during the second phase.
Teachers, lecturers, college and school workers are also on the government priority list, with the rest of the population considered low risk coming last.
Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary Norman Matara said it was a welcome move to prioritise health workers, adding that there was growing concern over lack of information on the vaccine that could lead to low uptake of the voluntary programme.
“As health workers and other frontline workers all over the world, we need to get vaccinated because we have a big challenge and are at risk,” he said.
“There is an area of concern which is giving us problems. There is no effective communication plan from the government and that is leaving a lot of room for fears to be talked about and that the acceptance of the vaccines may actually be very low.”
Zimbabwe Nurses Association president Enock Dongo challenged government to address the fears expressed by healthcare workers.
“The real issue is the fact that the frontliners are sceptical of the vaccine. They are afraid because they have no knowledge of the vaccine. They need to be well informed on the drug so they can also educate people as they come for vaccination,” Dongo said.
“Considering that all these drugs were donated, we need a lot of seriousness on the issue. We need more information because as it is, no one really knows about the virus, hence our reluctance to be the initial recipients of the vaccine.”
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions president Peter Mutasa said: “Workers have not been involved whatsoever despite the fact that we pushed during our discussions to have workers and employers representatives in the COVID-19 national taskforce.
“Our representatives have not been involved and they are in darkness in terms of information about efficacy, about safety of workers after taking those vaccines, and about which vaccines work and so on,” Mutasa said.
He said there was need for information about the vaccine to benefit pregnant women and those that have underlying conditions such as HIV, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and TB.
Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Takavafira Zhou said: “The sentiment that is coming from the teaching fraternity is that perhaps the Presidium should take the vaccine publicly in order to build public confidence to voluntarily take it.”
In the National Assembly yesterday, Harare East MP Tendai Biti (MDC Alliance) also raised concerns over the efficacy of the Chinese-donated drugs.
“The drug that was brought into this country has not been approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), but is still undergoing tests and more importantly, it has not had a peer review. This drug has been used in other countries and the highest efficacy rate it has had is 75%, whereas all the other drugs that are now in wide use, AstraZeneca, Modena, Pfizer, the Russian Sputnik 5, or Gamalia drug, all have an efficacy rate of 95%,” he said.
“I know that the Chinese drug requires lower temperatures of around two degrees, but we need massive logistics,” Biti said.
While information on the Chinese vaccine has not been officially provided, a pamphlet circulating on social media platforms indicates that it may not be administered on HIV, cancer patients and those with uncontrolled chronic conditions including hypertension and diabetes.
Other indications on the pamphlet were that people with uncontrolled epilepsy, neurologic conditions, uncontrolled diabetes or hypertension, heart failure, uncontrolled asthma and late stages of kidney disease were not advised to take the doses.
In his ministerial statement yesterday in the National Assembly, Vice-President and Health minister Constantino Chiwenga said the vaccine would be distributed to provinces and districts under police escort.
He said in order to rally stakeholder confidence, there would be massive media campaigns on radio, television, newspapers, billboards and social media platforms to dispel risk fears and increase uptake of the vaccine.
“There will be training and preparation of health workers on identification, management and reporting of potential cases of anaphylaxis and ensuring availability of comprehensive emergency tray at all vaccination points,” Chiwenga said.
He also said the country would receive vaccines every two weeks for the rollout programme to run smoothly.
He said the total estimated operational budget for COVID-19 vaccination would be US$6,7 million, with the total estimated cost for phase one being US$1,3 million.