Come on over and get your vaccines
An innovative campaign in South Africa is using a friendly phrase to boost immunization rates
In Zulu, the phrase “Zwakala” means “come on over.” It’s often used among friends as an invitation. And in South Africa, “Zwakala” is now the theme of an innovative immunization campaign.
The campaign not only provides people with their COVID-19 shots, but also essential vaccinations for young children against diseases like polio, measles, tetanus and diphtheria.
Recognizing that a lot of children missed out on important routine immunizations during the pandemic, the organizers of the initiative are racing to make up for lost time.
Siyanda Serwalo is a nurse in Johannesburg and is passionate about children’s health. She’s one of the healthcare workers taking part in the #Zwakala campaign and has been working at a pop-up vaccination site in the Ivory Park community, which is just north of Johannesburg.
“Fundamentally, a nation is built on children. Healthy children become healthy and productive adults,” Serwalo believes.
Serwalo has personally seen a fall-off in routine immunizations among children during the pandemic: “I’ve come across a lot of mothers who have not taken their child to the clinic routinely. I think this [the campaign] will help increase the immunization coverage in the country and in our region as well.”
In addition to providing children with routine immunizations, Serwalo’s team gives out COVID-19 vaccines to those aged over 12-years. The #Zwakala campaign, which is getting the word out in the media and going door-to-door, is trying to inform younger South African adults who have shown some hesitancy, that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, free and available.
Ivory Park is a neighbourhood where the vaccination rate has remained relatively low. It’s a diverse community, home to immigrant families from different parts of the continent. This campaign is offering vaccines to everyone, regardless of whether they’re South African citizens or not.
Bafana Chabalala, 17, works as a door-to-door mobilizer. For him, it’s essential that the vaccines are available to everyone. “In Ivory Park we have a lot of people and many of them are not from here. Some are from Mozambique or other countries on our border,” he notes. “So that’s why we say it doesn’t matter if they don’t have an identity document or a passport. And it’s free.”
The mobilizers like Bafana are well-known in the community – they’re friendly and familiar faces. The ability to relate to people on their own terms is integral to the campaign. That’s embodied in the word “Zwakala,” an expression used to call a friend over to spend time with you.
UNICEF South Africa has been working with local organizations to kickstart the campaign. Wendy Kumalo works for the non-profit organization Community Media Trust and has been impressed by the immediate impact.
“People loved the brand, they trusted it, and more people got vaccinated.”
Ivory Park isn’t the only community benefiting from Zwakala. The campaign has also been launched in the townships of Kwa-Mashu and Ntuzuma, just outside of Durban on South Africa’s eastern coast.
These are also communities where the COVID-19 vaccine uptake has been low. So, campaign advertisements are being shown on local television and social media to raise awareness. And the message is also being voiced on local radio – that's the medium that reaches most South Africans.
In the days leading up to the pop-up vaccine clinics, campaign workers will knock on doors, put up posters and distribute pamphlets so members of the community know the exact days and times they can get their vaccinations. They’ll also answer any questions community members might have about the vaccines that are available.
The campaign wouldn’t be complete without the Zwakala pickup truck. It’s mounted with a sign encouraging the community to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As it drives through the community, electronic and Zulu folk music is played through the speakers to attract attention. In between songs, a campaign worker takes to a microphone with one clear message: “Zwakala! Zwakala! Zwakala!”
In these townships, the eclectic campaign has been raising spirits and vaccination rates. Neliswa Mnana came to one of the clinics with her 6-month-old son, Phatu, after the pickup truck attracted her attention. She was able to get her COVID-19 vaccine and Phatu was able to get the routine immunizations he needs to keep him safe and protected.
For Mnana, having access to these important vaccines is a big relief:
“Coming here to the park is an easy thing. Many people don’t like walking or going to the clinic. But if they see something like this, they become happy. I always wanted to get vaccinated but when I see the distance of going to the clinic, I would just say ‘Nah, I’ll go tomorrow!’ But then when I heard the music and the message to come to the park and get vaccinated, I was running to get here. Now I am happy!"