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Vaccine turbulence not a train crash


In the week the fight to end the Covid-19 pandemic hit a bit of turbulence, Alpha Media Holdings chairperson of the Editorial Advisory Committee Muchadeyi Masunda lost his indomitable daughter Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl to the disease.
Dr Sindi, as she was known, had become an institution in South Africa, her adoptive home. Dubbed the people’s doctor, she was a physician, a radio DJ, a health activist and a researcher. She was a great communicator using both social and mainstream media to demystify some of the most difficult health issues that have vexed the human mind such as HIV and Aids, mental and reproductive health and other conditions lesser mortals find difficult to discuss in public.
The world had noticed, awarding her several accolades that must have made not only her family, but also all her compatriots back in Zimbabwe, proud. Dr Masunda’s family should derive solace from their daughter’s achievements, especially the way she changed the way the world looks at public health issues. There must be thousands of people whom she touched and thousands others unknown to her whose lives she saved.
For me, personally, Dr Sindi’s death was not the only one which shook me to the core recently. (Ironically, I didn’t know she was Dr Masunda’s progeny until her passing.) A close colleague of mine lost his only son to Covid-19 this week, also in South Africa. He himself had survived the disease having spent more than a fortnight on oxygen in a Zimbabwean health institution. Last week he told me of how his ex-wife, who lived with the children in South Africa, had been hit by the virus. His son very likely got the infection at the same time as the mother then developed pneumonia which killed him. He was 26.
The two deaths happened on the backdrop of the turbulence the fight against Covid-19 hit this week. The United States, South Africa and the European Union announced they would pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it had been linked to the death of six people who developed rare blood clots after having the jab. In the weeks preceding this, another vaccine, AstraZeneca, had met a similar fate and had been discontinued in many countries in the EU and in South Africa.
Closer to home, Chinese vaccines which Zimbabwe has embraced and rolled out, have come under renewed scrutiny after a Chinese official seemed to suggest the vaccines offered little protection against Covid-19. The sense of helplessness among the people, both those who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t yet been, must be palpable.
To my media colleagues, I think I have become a gadfly. I have sought to criticise them in order to provoke them into writing conscientiously about Covid-19 and the vaccination drive that’s meant to fight it. I have sought to drive them away from the tendentious reportage that they revel in, which is a major factor in promoting the helplessness that people feel and is driving them back into vaccine hesitancy.
What has happened to the J&J vaccines is not a train crash. Every drug goes through such episodes especially if it’s an emergency drug. Soon the scientists will figure out what element of the vaccines causes the rare blood clotting. But the key is, any protection is better than no protection.
What would Dr Sindi have said in the face of the hitches that have met the vaccines?
I know she would have said: “It’s about weighing the pros against the cons. In this case, the cons are so miniscule they don’t matter.” And that young man wouldn’t have died at 26.

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