WILLIAM HIRSCH reports on the first-ever People’s Vaccine Open Forum.
‘WE would like to see people vaccinated. It is the best defence against serious illness and death. We want to see people vaccinated but we will also not force people.’
These were the sentiments expressed by Kedibone Mdolo, a representative from the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa), at the first ever People’s Vaccine Open Forum.
The meeting, dubbed the People’s Assembly, took place on Saturday, February 13, on Zoom and was well attended by civil society, labour movements and interested individuals.
‘We have to make sure that our communities understand the issues of vaccination,’ stressed Mdolo. She went on to use the example of the smallpox disease, which has been eradicated through vaccinations. ‘We must dispel myths about vaccines. It is important for us to give people the correct information.’
The open forum took the form of a panel discussion and was followed by a question and answer session. It sparked an interesting debate on the importance of vaccines, transparency on the procurement process and civil society’s involvement in the process.
Panellists included Abeedah Adams, Kedibone Mdolo, Rehad Desai, Fatima Hassan, Zwelizima Vavi and Professor Yousuf Vawda. There was also input by Professor Helen Rees.
Also discussed at the meeting was the importance of civil society’s role in the vaccine roll-out. ‘There must be a seat at the table for civil society. We want to build this campaign and we need a movement to do that. We need to be able to unite and to speak with one voice,’ Adams said. There has been no consultation by government on the procurement and funding model for vaccines, and this is worrying in terms of transparency.
Another important topic of discussion to come out of the public forum was the planned day of action to come on February 24, which is the same day as the budget speech in parliament. Vavi said that it had been next to impossible to mobilise labour movements last year because of lockdown regulations and the pandemic. They had wanted to organise a series of strike actions last year but decided it was too risky while still being in the midst of a second wave of infections.
However, the unprecedented levels of unemployment have meant that unified action is more important than ever. Vavi added that between March and June, last year 2,2 million jobs had been lost. ‘We are going forward with the action on the 24th,’ he added. He went on to say that they had to become more creative with their actions to avoid the risk of COVID-19 infections.
Hassan, another panellist and member of the campaign, said that the role of civil society in determining the path moving forward was being neglected. She said that a lot of changes had been made in terms of our vaccine strategies with no consultation from the government.
She also said that the campaign may need to request an urgent meeting with the minister of health and the presidency. ‘There is no funding model that has been shared and disclosed. There are a number of unanswered questions. We need transparency,’ she said.
She also raised the issues of the patents. ‘Richer nations and big pharmaceutical companies are pushing back. Parliament has to step up and pass the patent act. We also need to start making demands on opposition parties to share their positions on patent monopolies in a pandemic.’
Professor Vawda said that one of the immediate aims of the People’s Vaccine Campaign (PVC) was to release a People’s Vaccine document. He said that the document would focus on the context of the pandemic, that vaccines must be for the public good, and that the document would also include a list of demands and a pledge.
Desai stressed the importance of popular education. He added that members of the campaign were working on a training programme which activists would be able to use in their communities. The training would speak to understanding the vaccines and dispelling myths and conspiracy theories.
Overall, the first PVC open forum was a success. It generated a lot of interest from all sectors of society. It was a great step in building a unified voice for the fair and equitable distribution of vaccines. No one is safe until everyone is safe.