DOUBT: Many Namibians doubt vaccine safety

Namibia reported its first case of COVID-19 on 13 March 2020. Four days later, the government declared a state of emergency that would eventually encompass a ban on international travel and mass gatherings, social distancing, and phased lockdowns (WHO Africa, 2020).

Since then, the country has experienced four waves of rapid increases in new infections, hospitalisations, and deaths. As of 7 May 2022, Namibia had officially recorded 159,136 cases of COVID-19 and 4,026 deaths (Africa CDC, 2022).

The government’s swift and massive response included an Incident Management System (IMS), a strengthened National Public Health Emergency Operation Centre (NPHEOC), and a COVID-19 Communication Centre with twice-daily news conferences.

As of late April 2022, 457,277 adults (31% of the adult population) and 20,665 children had received at least shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The government’s stimulus and relief package included support to businesses, employees who lost income, farmers, and households (Shiimi, 2020). While no official labour force surveys were conducted during 2020 and 2021, deteriorating economic conditions cost thousands of workers their jobs in the hospitality/tourism, retail and wholesale, and manufacturing and construction sectors (Petersen, 2021). The country’s GDP growth rate, which declined from -0.9% in 2019 to -7.9% at the end of 2020, is expected to grow at 1.2% in 2021/2022 (Shiimi, 2022).

While the country did not experience widespread protests against COVID-19-related restrictions or government conduct when enforcing public health mandates, misinformation about COVID-19 was widespread, spreading everything from bogus cures to anti-vaccine conspiracies (Links, 2020). In response, the government introduced regulations making misinformation about COVID-19 a criminal offence, punishable by a fine or up to six months in prison. Thus far only one person has been found guilty.

A recent Afrobarometer survey confirms the pandemic’s massive toll on Namibians, both through health consequences and economic effects.

Vaccine uptake remains low, as many Namibians say they are unlikely to get vaccinated.

Overall, most Namibians are satisfied with government’s response to the pandemic. But they are less positive about the government’s relief efforts, and many believe that COVID-19 resources have been lost due to corruption.

Most Namibians also believe that their government is not adequately prepared for future health emergencies and should invest in preparations for such crises, even at the cost of other health services.

Christiaan Keulder is the national investigator for Namibia.