You think you know someone until the topic of COVID-19 vaccination comes up and you realise you don’t know them at all.

I’ve discussed OSF-SA’s COVID-19 response strategy at length on various platforms. We developed this tiered approach early in March last year before the new coronavirus had even reached pandemic status.

In addition to our COVID-19 grantmaking response which initially focused on providing emergency relief to organisations most in need and enabling our grantees to repurpose their existing funds to achieve the agility the moment required, late last year, we invested in several initiatives aimed at providing African people equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Advocacy and information around the use of vaccines is the focus of our current response.

Our message is that Africans should not be last in line for vaccines and therapeutics. We’ve added our voice to the call for vaccine equity, including support for the People’s Vaccine. Despite advances (and setbacks) in the rollout of various vaccines in South Africa, human behaviour remains key to preventing a third wave of COVID-19. This includes by practising non-pharmaceutical interventions such as physical distancing, hand washing and wearing face covers. These are the measures that will prevent individuals from contracting the virus, well before they receive a vaccine. Yet, information on prevention remains scant, especially in one’s mother tongue, which is why we intend to redouble our work with our grantees in the health and media space to spread this message as well as to ignite conversations around vaccine efficacy.

Perhaps ignite is the wrong word, since COVID-19 vaccine seems to be a combustible subject and people hold strong views on the issue. As a precursor to hosting a conversation to bring together our interested grantees and other parties to discuss issues around vaccine efficacy, misinformation and disinformation surrounding preventatives as well vaccine hesitancy, we recently held an internal conversation to gauge how colleagues were engaging with their various stakeholders on these matters.

We agreed that vaccine hesitancy remains an issue in South Africa (as in the rest of the world) even though the numbers are shifting in a positive direction, according to the latest IPSOS-World Economic Forum survey. However, by the evening of our internal discussion, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced a pause in the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA announced that it would be halting the rollout of the J&J jab following reports of blood clots in six women who’d received the vaccine. By night-time, more conspiracy theories had sprung up online and in forums around the world. As these debates increase, so too does scepticism around vaccination. Following concern about the diminished efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine against the strain of COVID-19 prevalent in South Africa, and our government’s decision to resell our stocks, there’s no wonder that people are confused.

I would never discount people’s very real fears of getting sick, more ill or even dying as a result of a vaccine they feel hasn’t been adequately trialled and tested. Only time will tell, but the truth remains that the chances of blood clots are incredibly low (0.000088 percent, according to the US CDC and Johns Hopkins University) while COVID-19 remains a threat not only to our health and economies, but to our societies as a whole.

We plan to hold our conversation to understand what drives vaccine hesitancy and to learn from our grantees and other experts what we can do to shape compelling narratives around vaccine use and efficacy in mid-May. Please look out for your invitation closer to the time.

The last few months have been a busy time for us at OSF-SA and indeed, within the broader network. In my last letter, I advised you of the changes taking place at the Open Society Foundations. I can now confirm that our Global Board has approved a proposal to merge the OSF African foundations into one entity, although the exact nature and structure of this merged entity is yet to be finalised. To learn more, please read OSF President Mark Malloch-Brown’s thoughts on why the Open Society Foundations should transform in order to meet the demands of a changing world.

As a national foundation, OSF-SA will most likely not be impacted this year. However, we are advancing under the assumption that we will have greater alliance with our sister foundations and our teams are already collaborating across the continent. While our restructuring process might have medium- to long-term impact on our grantmaking, we will keep you apprised every step of the way. We promise to communicate timeously when we have urgent news to convey, but for now, it’s business as usual, although our work on this transformation has had an impact on the approval and rollout of our 2021 strategy.

We have recently completed our internal strategy process and implementation plans and will soon embark on a solicited call process to partner with relevant parties to implement our new strategy. In addition to this newsletter, all information will be shared on our website and social media platforms (FacebookTwitter and Instagram) so do watch these spaces!

Finally, towards the end of 2020, we made the first of our economic justice and climate justice grants in support of a just transition from dirty to clean energy sources. This is an exciting new direction for OSF-SA as our country’s future will always be at risk unless we have a stable energy supply.

It is also clear that most South Africans do not understand or agree on what is meant by a just transition. For this reason, we would like to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders within the next month or so to thrash out issues and to have a unified vision for South Africa’s climate action goals preparatory to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), scheduled to take place in November this year. Again, do look out for your invitation or visit our website or check out our social media platforms closer to the time. We’ll update these with all pertinent information as soon as we’ve locked down dates and identified key stakeholders.

Written by Bulelwa Ngewana, Executive Director: OSF-SA