Villagers make difficult 70km journey to get vaccinated

Eastern Cape health department says many new sites will open soon

By Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik and Daniel Steyn

1 July 2021

Pensioners getting vaccinated at Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Regional Hospital in Bizana, Eastern Cape. At the time of publication, this is the only vaccination site in Winnie Madikizela Mandela Municipality. Photo: Daniel Steyn

The Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Regional Hospital in Bizana, Eastern Cape is currently the only Covid-19 vaccination site in the Winnie Madikizela Mandela Municipality.

Many residents eligible for the vaccine live in far-flung rural villages, requiring long commutes on treacherous roads into Bizana.

Lizo Sunduza, 65, lives in Nqabeni Village, some 34 kilometres from town. To get vaccinated, he woke up before sunrise to leave home by 6am. He has to spend about R100 on a round-trip to the vaccine site.

We spoke to Sunduza shortly after he had been vaccinated at the hospital. “I’m happy that I got vaccinated. I don’t worry much about the money I spent coming here because my health comes first. When I left home my grandchildren were scared that I might not be vaccinated since I did not register, but the nurses are very helpful here,” he said.

Sunduza said he was concerned about other pensioners in his village who cannot afford the trip to the hospital.

Nyavini village is about 70km from town. Villagers there rely on a bus or bakkies that leave at 5am and only return at about 6pm. Community leader Valumsindo Fana said most elderly people, including himself, are yet to register for the vaccine. “Most of us are clueless about this vaccination. Even on radio they talk about registering which we know nothing about. Government should send community health workers to our villages to help people register,” he said.

Hospital CEO Zakanzima Mbethe said that their uptake has slowly been increasing. He said vaccination delays are mostly due to problems with the SMS appointment system and the long travelling distances for patients from outlying areas.

“With travelling times from home to the hospital often taking several hours, registered patients are often unable to make their appointments, or would have to leave early to make it home before dark,” said Mbethe. “30% of the 300 allocated daily doses are reserved for walk-ins.”

Of nearly 25,000 people over 60 in the district, only about 3,000 had received doses by the time of our visit on 21 June.

An outreach program will be launched soon to make vaccinations more accessible to villagers. Mbethe said that with the arrival of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine doses, three additional clinics will be administering the vaccine.

Eastern Cape Health Department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said that many more vaccination sites will be opened soon across the province.