What is either communication breakdown or a peculiar tug-of-war has resulted in a situation where nurses and other healthcare workers appear to have been unofficially deprioritised in the vaccine rollout. Resultantly, the Botswana Nurses Union (BONU) is engaged in a rather unusual battle to have its members vaccinated as a priority group because of the health risk they face as the most frontline personnel in the fight against Covid-19.
Sunday Standard came to learn of this issue courtesy of nurse informants who complained that they are not considered a priority group in the phased national vaccine roll-out.
“Why are teachers a priority group when we are at greater risk and when more nurses than teachers have died from Covid-19 because they [nurses] are in closer daily contact with patients?” posed a Gaborone nurse in reaction to announcement that teachers will jump to the head of the vaccination queue before schools re-open on August 30.
The oddity of nurses and other healthcare workers struggling to get vaccinated is that in the national vaccination plan, all 22 497 of them are listed as a first-priority group and were supposed to be vaccinated during Phase 1. Indeed that has been confirmed by Christopher Nyanga, the Chief Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
“All health care workers, including nurses, are considered as frontline workers,” he said in response to Sunday Standard’s questions. “They are therefore, a prioritised group for COVID-19 vaccination. As a result, since COVID-19 vaccination started in Botswana, all health care workers were encouraged to take the COVID-19 jab regardless of their age. This communication has also been made publicly. Many heeded the call.”
As it turns out though, some healthcare workers didn’t heed the call, “for mainly personal reasons” as Nyanga put it. It would appear that they have since changed their minds, which decision may have been influenced by the deadly onslaught of the Delta variant which debilitates the body and continues to claim lives. From Nyanga’s description of the situation, still the ministry maintained a magnanimous policy, allowing stragglers to jump to the head of the queue and get vaccinated.
“Whenever they decide to take the jab, and vaccines are available, they are still allowed to take the jab regardless of their ages,” he said. “As at 20 August 2021, about 65 percent of all health care workers in Botswana had taken their COVID-19 jab.”
Oddly though, BONU asserted that there is resistance from some District Health Management Teams (DHMTs) across the country. DHMT is a select team of senior health workers who manage the district health office. DHMTs in question willfully refuse to accord nurses and other healthcare workers first-priority status. In one case, a senior nurse in charge of a Gaborone clinic is said to have secured vaccine jabs for her staff only after an exchange of bitter words with DHMT officers.
“Some DHMTs are not prioritising healthcare workers, especially during this most recent phase of vaccination,” said BONU’s National Publicity Secretary, Aobakwe Lesolame. “We are collecting data and will be approaching the ministry as a matter of urgency.”
Odder still, BONU has already approached senior management at the Ministry headquarters to lodge an official complaint and have the issue resolved. Lesolame said that following such engagement, the Permanent Secretary assured Union representatives that the Ministry would ensure that the remaining healthcare workers get the jab as soon as possible. That there is still need to approach the ministry as a matter of urgency is evidence that all parties concerned are still not on the same page on this issue.
Explaining, in a general sense, the criteria used to assign places on the vaccine priority list, Nyanga said that different groups of people are considered a priority for COVID-19 vaccination on the basis of, amongst others, their level of risk to COVID-19 infections in their line of duty.
“Healthcare workers are first in this category,” he added.