A pop-up vaccination site at Madeira Shopping Centre in Danville, Tshwane vaccinated only 2 people and tested 17 in 3 hours. Danville has been identified as the latest covid-19 hot spot. Picture: THULANI MBELE
A pop-up vaccination site at Madeira Shopping Centre in Danville, Tshwane vaccinated only 2 people and tested 17 in 3 hours. Danville has been identified as the latest covid-19 hot spot. Picture: THULANI MBELE

In a few months from now we will mark two years since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in SA. During this time we have all felt the devastating effect of the virus.

Many of us have lost family, close friends and loved ones. Few South Africans have been spared its economic impact, through the closure of small businesses and the loss of jobs.

As we prepare for an impending fourth wave driven by the Omicron variant, we cannot afford further loss of life or destruction of the economy. It is now clear that the virus will be with us for the long term, and that we must find ways to manage it that preserve economic activity and enable life to continue.

Amid all of this there is good news: unlike when we encountered previous waves of infection, vaccines are now widely available to anyone aged 12 and above. We know vaccines are highly effective against severe illness, hospitalisation and death, despite the emergence of new variants.

Vaccines are the key to managing the pandemic in a sustainable manner that avoids constant disruptions to our lives. They are the difference between a life-threatening virus and a virus against which we are protected. However, a vaccination-first strategy requires many more of us to be vaccinated.

The most important thing for us all to understand is that vaccination is not only a personal choice. It is about preventing transmission to others, protecting the healthcare system, and mitigating the risk of yet more dangerous future variants.

As long as a large proportion of the population remains unvaccinated, the virus will continue to spread rapidly and cause severe illness. Hospitals will again be overwhelmed, and further restrictions will be necessary to prevent the collapse of the healthcare system. New variants will emerge in unvaccinated populations with a high rate of reproduction.

As the government, we have worked hard to make vaccines widely and easily accessible to all South Africans. We have secured ample supplies of effective vaccines, established sophisticated distribution systems and set up thousands of vaccination sites in a short space of time, including through close collaboration with the private sector.

We have ramped up our outreach efforts, rolled out mobile vaccination units, and mobilised leaders from all sectors of society to encourage vaccination. We have made information available in all languages and explained the benefits of vaccination, emphasising that vaccines are completely safe, extensively tested and highly effective.

We have done all this in the hope that South Africans would come forward in large numbers to take up vaccination and help us to defeat this virus. However, it is now clear that further measures are necessary to encourage vaccine uptake and ensure the safety of all South Africans as they go about their daily lives.

During his address to the nation on Sunday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on requiring vaccination for specific activities and locations. The president recognises that this is a difficult and complex issue, and not one that we take lightly.

A wide range of countries, from the US to the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Indonesia, Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, have introduced vaccine requirements for high-risk workplaces and public spaces. These are places where large numbers of people gather indoors, and where the risk of transmission is extremely high.

Requiring evidence of vaccination to take part in certain social activities, whether in restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres or sporting events, is not a form of punishment. Rather, it is an important way to make those activities safe for people who choose to engage in them.

Imagine attending a concert, or having a meal in a restaurant indoors, knowing that everyone around you — from employees to fellow customers — is vaccinated. The reassurance that public spaces are safe is important not only to protect people from infection but to restore confidence in our ability to return to normal activity.

The fundamental premise of a vaccine requirement is that vaccination is a social obligation: it is necessary to protect others, and to protect society as a whole. It is for this reason that most countries already require proof of yellow fever vaccination for entry, and that we ask for an immunisation record when children register for school.

Put simply, if we did not have these requirements we would be putting many innocent people at risk. While freedom of choice is important, no person should be allowed to harm others through their choices, and everyone should be protected from harm that is outside their control.

If a person chooses not to be vaccinated, they cannot also choose to engage in social activities that place others at risk. We are at a crucial turning point in our response to the pandemic. We cannot afford further restrictions on economic activity or the uncertain pendulum swings that have characterised lockdowns in the past.

However, full vaccination is the only alternative to lockdowns. There is no other way: the choice is obvious. The government will continue to engage closely with social partners in determining the way forward and in designing vaccine requirements that allow as much freedom as possible while protecting everyone from harm.

While some might want us to impose these measures immediately and without consultation, such engagement is absolutely necessary to ensure broad buy-in for such an important decision. As always, our approach will be guided by the best available scientific advice, by global experience and by our world-class constitution, which gives us clear directions for balancing fundamental rights.

Can we avoid further restrictions and get our economy up and running again? Can we protect those we love and prevent further loss of life? The answer to these questions lies with each and every one of us.

• Gungubele is minister in the presidency.

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