Fighting ‘vax holdout’ among farmworkers to save lives

Doctors and activists say that people in rural areas tend to be more sceptical about getting the Covid jab. Hard work is being done to counter misinformation among agri workers, who cannot afford not to be protected

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While President Cyril Ramaphosa and other leaders plead with South Africans to get jabbed against Covid-19, vaccine refusal runs rife in rural communities. Misinformation is fuelling this “vaccine holdout” and experts say farmworkers, especially, cannot afford this.

“Vaccines are safe. They are our best protection against this disease and the national vaccination programme is our surest guarantee of a swift health and economic recovery,” the president wrote in a recent edition of his Monday letter to the nation.

His pleas for people to get the potentially lifesaving vaccination, however, falls on deaf ears in Mzansi’s rural communities, notes farmworker rights activist Billy Claasen.

Fighting vax holdout: Dr Difuro Masemola is an experienced medical doctor based in Ekhuruleni. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Dr Difuro Masemola, an experienced medical doctor based in Ekhuruleni. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Meanwhile, Dr Difuro Masemola, a general practitioner from Ekhurleni in Gauteng, says people living in rural areas seem to be more sceptical about the vaccine than those in cities.

“They tend to entertain more negative information than positive information. If you tell them one person suffered this, it becomes news for them. They believe that this will also happen to them.

“Instead of searching for scientific evidence they [often] believe in hearsay and do not check credible sources of information,” she says.

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Facebook professors and pastors

Fighting vax holdout: Executive director of the Rural and Farmworkers Development Organisation, Billy Claasen. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Billy Claasen, executive director of the Rural and Farmworkers Development Organisation. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
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Claasen, executive director of the Western Cape-based Rural and Farmworkers Development Organisation, tells Health For Mzansi that misinformation from “trusted leaders” are fuelling vaccine holdouts among farmworkers.

“There are a lot of conspiracy theories and people telling stories, ‘Facebook professors and pastors’ who go into these communities and tell people to believe in God and not to take the vaccine.

 “I believe in God, but I am one of those people who believe that God has put people on earth to do his work. [We need to] take the vaccine because it is the right thing to do.”

He has since embarked on a mission to educate farmworkers about the effects of forfeiting the vaccine.


“If it is not contained properly, it can have very catastrophic implications for food security and food production in South Africa,” Claasen says.

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Leaders need to fight misinformation

According to Ramaphosa, the number of vaccinations administered in South Africa has passed the 7.5 million mark.

“Around three million people are fully vaccinated. At the present rate, we are vaccinating on average 220 000 people a day.

“We need to avoid spreading misleading and false information that can cause confusion,” he said. 

Claasen stresses, “We, as leaders in the farming space need to reach out to farmworkers so that they can make informed decisions – by giving them the right information.”

Fighting vax holdout: Covid Vaccine: Jan Pieterse (56) was amongst 366 farmworkers to receive his vaccine recently at a mass vaccine rollout initiative in Rawsonville. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Jan Pieterse was one of 366 farmworkers to receive his vaccine recently in a mass vaccine rollout initiative in Rawsonville. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Mass rollout in Western Cape

In July, the Western Cape department of health vaccinated hundreds of farmworkers in different rural communities. Among the vaccinated farmworkers were Jan Pieterse, who grew up in Rawsonville. He says the risk of dying if you are not vaccinated, is just too big.

“It is everyone’s decision if he would like to be vaccinated or not,” says Pieterse. “But Covid-19 is a dangerous thing. The vaccine will help to protect you.”

Klara Hennings, a retired worker of Voorsorg Boerdery, warns on the dangers of misinformation.

“You should not believe all the stories that people tell you about the vaccine. The vaccine does good. The needle does not hurt. Nothing happened to me,” says Hennings.

Dr Masemola further notes that many living in rural areas were also living far away from vaccination sites.

“The problem is the choice of vaccination sites. Sometimes they are too far away from where the people are. Even if it is not too far, it requires them to be transported to these sites and not everybody has transport available.”

To meet the demand for vaccination, Ramaphosa says several vaccination sites throughout the country were now operating on weekends and vaccination drive-throughs and mobile vaccination units were also in operation.

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