OPINION: What getting my COVID vaccine taught me about being a public servant

OPINION

On the morning of 15 July, I woke up very early dancing to the song in my head by Mdu Masilela – Vula Masango Singene. I was very excited that it was finally time for the 35- to 49-year-olds to get vaccinated. The air was crispy outside but, in the house, there was a lot of excitement and anticipation to finally get the COVID-19 jab. I was among the first to nearly crash the system registration for this "national key point" age group. I quickly reached for my mobile and began the process of registering on the Bonitas vaccination hub. then I was redirected to the government page to register on the Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS). I got a message that I will receive an SMS confirming my registration. The registration process went by quickly without any hustle and soon I received an SMS with a unique code confirming my registration. I was elated.

On Monday morning I decided to wake up early and go get vaccinated at Clicks, as I had heard over the weekend that Clicks and Dischem were part of the vaccination drive. By 8:30 am I was already at the mall and quickly made my way up the escalator to Clicks. When I got there, I could not believe the long line that was already snaking for over 500m. Most of the people in that line were my age mates, you know the 35- to 49-year-olds; national breadwinners, the parents of bundles of joy, they who outlived the Aids epidemic and millennium bug fanthom.

There was a lot of excitement in the air as people were chatting to each other and other’s greeting those that they know. The camaraderie at the line reminded me of the long queues that we endured in 1994 to cast out first vote. I watched in awe as the excitement grew closer to the time of the store opening and at this point the queue was growing longer.

At 9 am the store doors did not open as anticipated to let us in, but for a woman dressed in Clicks uniform to come out and address us. She indicated that “government” had not yet delivered the vaccine for the day and she was not sure if the quantity ordered would be enough for everyone in the queue. At this point no one made a move and the lady kept on moving down the queue to make her unwelcome announcement. No one dared move and we continued standing where we were and just hoped that “government” would deliver the vaccine soon. At that I wasn’t going tell people I work for government, lest I had to explain why the delivery had not been made.

Just before 10 am, a man stepped outside to enquire if everyone had registered on EVS and informed us that they only had one nurse on site who would administer vaccines and that they would only be taking people who had received an SMS with an appointment for that day. At this point, people were getting agitated and I decided to move to another vaccination site. I quickly googled vaccination areas in Pretoria and was soon pointed to a community hall near-by, about 15km from the mall.

Upon arrival at the community hall, I was met by a friendly security guard who sanitised my hands and asked me loosely, “O batla eng” – what do you want here? I said I was there to get vaccinated and she said to me they took only people who were 50 and older. I said to her that there was an announcement that 35-year-olds could register. She told me to wait a minute while she went to check with “sister” – the nurse. A few minutes later she returned and escorted me to the beginning of the long queue in the hall. The hall was packed, it was cold and dimly lit. There were doves flying in and out through the broken windows and this was a facility that belonged to the municipality. Doves, those birds of love and peace that I could feel filled this hall.

Fortunately, at this site they had chairs and I did not have to stand like I did at Clicks. I watched as people played games on their phones, others read novels, while there was a woman who was knitting what looked like a child’s jersey. Others were chit-chatting, but mostly people were minding their own business. At this vaccination site, people were more subdued as compared to the queue at the mall. It was elderly people in their 60s and 70s, and those in their 50’s who were brought in by their madams to vaccinate. To me, it really looked like people in my age group were definitely not at this vaccination site, hence the security needed to confirm if they would take me in.

Further up the queue was a woman in navy and white uniform who was measuring temperatures, taking down names and ID numbers, and putting them down in what looked like a registration form. I was so shocked that our government was still using a manual way of checking people’s identification, despite having the biometric system in place. Nevertheless, I kept quiet and did not ask any questions, otherwise I would be told that I know too much or even worse, be asked to leave. Well, the queue seemed like it was moving at first when I arrived but closer to the traditional lunch hour, midday to 1 pm, it was moving at a snail’s pace. At this point I was hungry, thirsty and tired of playing games. I started chatting to a woman next to me who introduced herself as Thembi. We spoke about anything (weather, looting in KwaZulu-Natal, the virus, TV soapies) and everything under the sun just to while away time.

At 1 pm it was my turn to go through the corridor that led to the designated area for vaccination. There was another woman who was checking IDs and asking if we have registered on the website. Again, she was manually completing a card that we needed to present to the nurse who would be administering the vaccination. Then I was moved to the next table where a woman was talking to her colleagues about a funeral that she had attended where the deceased had requested to be buried with all his clothes and expensive shoes. She was more focused on her colleagues and the tale that she was narrating than on me. I asked myself where is the batho pele principle? She just gave me one look and asked for my ID - she was using a kindle (haaa! Finally, there was a sign of technology on site).

After several attempts of capturing my ID number on that small gadget, she finally got it right and all my personal information was on the screen. The security came over to ask her if they vaccinated people who are breastfeeding and this lady indicated that they do not, while the nurse next to her (who seemed to hold a higher rank, looking at the epaulets on her shoulders) indicated that they do vaccinate breastfeeding people. At this point, the security looked confused and the nurse asked that the “patient” should be brought to her. Without even looking up, she gave me back my ID and then moved on to checking her cellphone.

Once I was validated, she indicated that I needed to move to the door on my left. Upon entering the designated vaccination area the nurse there checked my card, asked me if I was an educator or from Social Development, I then replied that neither of the two and she said she was very relieved otherwise she was going to send me back as they had run out of stock of J&J that was reserved for educators and Social Development employees. She was friendlier than the last woman but looked very tired. She told me to sit behind six other patients and wait for my name to be called.

My excitement wore off when I watched others being vaccinated. I had hoped that the vaccination took place behind a screen of some sort, where it is only the patient and the nurse. I was really taken by surprise to see that you get the jab right there while others are watching you flinch or try to take your shoulder out from under the layers of clothing covering it. In my head Tshepo Tshola’s _Papa _song was playing “waiting for your name to be called” (oh, the good lord has called his name to rest in eternal peace!), and finally my name was called. The nurse greeted me and told me to look straight ahead and before I knew it the needle was piercing my tinny, boney shoulder and before my brain could register the pain, it was all over. Just like that, it was done, kaboom!

Then the other nurse who was standing by told me to proceed to the next queue. This was the final queue of the day, where the woman in charge took the card and registered it again in another form. This time I asked her what she was doing and she indicated that it was part of statistics that they were collecting. Once again, I wondered why the statistics were collected manually and not electronically using the same ID number that I had registered with.

Nevertheless, I had to wait for a further 10 minutes before receiving my card and heading home. When I looked at my watch since I walked into that hall at 10:30 am, I realised that the whole process had taken me four hours, as well a further two hours at Clicks!

Now, as a public servant myself, I realised what our community members must go through on a daily basis at the hospital, clinic, or even at a municipal office. This experience made me swear to be a better public servant and to serve people with pride and dignity.

To my fellow public servants, let us treat each other with respect, humility, love and be dedicated to serving others. People’s lives and livelihoods are in our hands! The excitement we have shown during this vaccination period must transcend into other areas of services to the public. This is generation that can restore hope to the majority. We should not bask in the glory of secured employment when the majority of our peers and young people can’t even maneuverer the EVS system, let alone money for transport to the nearest vaccination site.

A luta continua!

Izimangaliso Malatjie is the Director in Finance at the National School of Government. She writes in her personal capacity.