South Africans fight to bridge digital divide in COVID-19 vaccination race


JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Esther Dhlamini went to collect her pension in Soweto Township in Johannesburg, she was surprised to find a local bishop on hand to allay her fears about the COVID-19 vaccination and register for the vaccine on their mobile phone.

Community “infantry” like the bishop are among many initiatives across South Africa to tackle the digital divide that threatens to affect immunization among people without internet access – including many retirees.

“I was afraid to get the vaccine and didn’t know how to do it,” said Dhlamini, 71, outside the Boxer supermarket where she collects her retirement allowance of Rand 1,900 ($ 140) each month.

“But then the bishop showed me a video of him getting the shot and he’s still alive now, so I let him sign up,” Dhlamini told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Tens of thousands of retirees are being targeted by partnerships between authorities, charities and churches to ensure that it’s not just the rich or the digitally connected who are immune to COVID-19 in the country most affected Africa.

As daily cases of COVID-19 increase, progress on the national vaccination campaign has been slow and activists fear that people living in rural areas, or those without an internet connection or medical assistance private, are completely left behind.

So far, 3.7% of South Africa’s roughly 58 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to a Reuters tally, with only healthcare workers and those over 60 currently eligible.

“We have some very elitist conversations around COVID-19,” said Thami Nkosi, acting program manager at local charity Right2Know, which works to improve access to public information campaigns.

“We use complicated numbers, maps and information, it is almost as if certain sections of society – the illiterate, the elderly, those without access to technology – are being forgotten,” Nkosi added. .


Almost all of the 38 million South Africans – nearly two-thirds of the population – who have Internet access use their mobile phones to connect, according to the online data portal Statista.

But data is expensive in South Africa, with broadband research firm ranking the country in the top half of global prices.

Several Ministry of Health immunization initiatives have sought to take advantage of the country’s relatively high rates of connectivity and mobile phone use while reducing costs for users.

It launched a free hotline and free quick code, or unstructured supplemental service data (USSD), to help register people without data or the internet for vaccination.

Health ministry officials were not immediately available to comment on the widespread use of these services.

But their partnership with the South African Council of Churches (SACC) – a forum of church members and organizations – and Boxer supermarket branches across the country has so far reached at least 120,000 people.

Volunteers approach retirees as they line up, tell them about the myths and misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine, and if they agree, they record them on their phones for a vaccination appointment .

“In launching this campaign, we had only one goal in mind: to ultimately help the government’s efforts to immunize as many of our citizens as quickly as possible,” said Ian Bamber, a spokesperson for Boxer.

Bishop Shadrack Moloi, president of the Council of African Independent Churches, member of SACC, said churches can be “an incredible resource” in the vaccination campaign.

“It’s important that churches get involved because we have a close connection to the community,” Moloi said.


Other projects have included the distribution of 200,000 leaflets containing vaccine information across the country and social media campaigns encouraging young South Africans to help register their grandparents.

A truck coordinated by provincial health departments and UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, screened videos of people sharing COVID-19 stories across the country in local languages ​​while helping them to register for the vaccine.

Volunteer networks, like COVIDComms SA, share infographic video messages to explain the different ways to register.

Getting older people to register for vaccination is only the first step, said Jane Simmonds, research director at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), a parastatal medical research organization.

“Registration is important but cannot save lives, needles in guns with vaccines save lives,” said Simmonds, who is involved in the country’s vaccine communications strategy.

Moloi said it was essential to ensure that no one was left behind in a country struggling with centuries of inequality and poverty.

“The risk of only vaccinating the rich or those with access to the Internet is that we are perpetuating this divide, and everyone needs this vaccine,” he said, as an elderly woman on crutches was joining the retreat queue.

($ 1 = Rand 13.5622)

Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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