Vaccines are not readily available in many countries. Yet when a limited supply does arrive, people are not always interested. On March 25, South Sudan received 132,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine through the COVAX program, the global effort to provide vaccines to poorer countries. They were free to all comers. But there was no rush to get the vaccines. As of August 3, only 56,989 vaccine doses have been administered in country of approximately 12 million people. South Sudan returned some 72,000 doses to COVAX, which were shipped to Kenya instead. South Sudanese physician Edward Kenyi, now living in the U.S., plans to send this letter to his mother, Elizabeth, who's opposed reluctant to take the vaccine, to try and change her mind.
The last time I called you on the phone a few weeks ago, you told me you were yet to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Although I have been telling you to take it for weeks, you said you are still waiting for the right time.
I hope this letter will persuade you once and for all that the time is right now.
Mum, since the beginning of the pandemic, when cases were rising in South Sudan and many people were dying of COVID-19, I implored you to take the necessary precautions to avoid catching the disease. You're in your 70s, which puts you among the most vulnerable groups of people at risk of getting seriously ill ... and of dying.
Before the vaccines were invented, you told me you heard messages broadcast over the radio every day and saw many big posters on the streets advising all to wash their hands often, use face masks and practice physical distancing to stay healthy.
Every time I spoke to you, you were either going to a funeral for a relative or returning from the marriage ceremony of another. You said even at these funerals and marriages, they talked about precautions.
You told me that at some of the funerals you attended, no one would declare the cause of death – but that many people suspected COVID-19.
In those early months of the pandemic, you seemed to take the disease seriously. You were concerned about me in America, where the disease was affecting many people, and advised me to be very careful.
However, with time you have stopped taking the disease seriously. You told me you heard the disease is no longer a threat in Juba, where you live, because the number of people testing positive or dying from it has declined. I know that this is not true. Here's what the numbers say. As of the end of July 2021, there have been 11,090 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 120 deaths, reported to the World Health Organization.
And when I've urged you to avoid going to funerals for the time being to avoid exposure to the virus, or to at least wear your face mask, you told me that people you know say Black people are immune in general — and if they're not, they do not get serious disease.
Mum, as a medical doctor and a public health physician who spends my days raising awareness about the pandemic, I feel pained that you are not following the simple steps that we advocate. Why do you trust the rumors and stories from WhatsApp group messages more than your own son? I wonder why my messages are not resonating with you and many members of my family.
The growing toll of COVID-19 has not had any impact. Even when lockdowns were initiated in Juba, you still felt compelled to go to funerals, telling me it would look bad if you did not show up.
Now that a vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19 has been developed and found to be very effective in preventing the disease, you are not convinced that you should be vaccinated. Remember the last discussion we had? I told you I had completed my vaccine doses. You were surprised that I took the vaccine what with all the wild rumors circulating about it in the country.
Mum, how can you believe the stories that the vaccines cause infertility? You also told me someone mentioned to you that Bill Gates is implanting microchips into Africans in order to control them — and that you have seen the video of a key sticking like a magnet to the arm of someone who was vaccinated.
There is no evidence that any of these things are true. Whoever is responsible for developing and circulating these stories is going to hurt millions of people.
How can I convince you that as a medical professional, I believe in vaccines, which are safe and effective against the virus? The rumors you hear every day are just that: rumors. There is no shred of evidence to support them.
Let me tell you these facts, again: The vaccines are effective and very safe. Even though the percentage of Africans who have been vaccinated is low due to lack of supply, millions of African people have already taken the vaccine, and they're doing fine. The few reports about side effects like blood clots and severe reactions are minimal, compared to the protections you will get from being vaccinated.
I was thrilled that when I told my little sister that I was vaccinated, she went ahead and got her vaccine. I was excited that at last, someone is stepping forward to show you that it is possible safe to take the vaccine and be protected. She had no complaints arising from the vaccines. Shouldn't this fact help you make up your mind?
Mum, the vaccines are free of charge. It is the best protection for you at your age, and you should seriously consider taking the shot. Vaccines prevented us from the childhood illnesses you feared years ago. And the new COVID vaccines will keep us safe from this new plague. Why would you trust those vaccines then and not these? The COVID vaccines, like the childhood vaccines, have been tested to make sure they are effective and safe. Safety has always been the marker for bringing any vaccine to the public.
Mum, I am appealing to you to rethink your stand and take the step to take the vaccine. Once vaccinated, you will be safe. And, you won't have to endure any more of my pestering — we can talk about whatever you want to!
Take the jab, mum.
Born and raised in South Sudan, and now living in Baltimore, Edward Kenyi is a medical doctor working as a technical adviser for Jhpiego, a Johns Hopkins University global health affiliate. As a member of the South Sudanese Health Professional Association, he participates in live webinars on various online streaming platforms to raise awareness on COVID-19 prevention and debunk myths surrounding vaccines globally and within his community in the U.S.
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