AD470: Emaswati approve of government’s COVID-19 response, but remain skeptical about vaccines

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Sipho S. Kunene

Since its first case in March 2020, Eswatini has recorded 26,628 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 806 deaths as of 4 August 2021 (World Health Organization, 2021). To contain the outbreak, the government quickly declared a national emergency and instituted night-time curfews, school closures, restrictions on non-essential travel, limited sales of alcohol, social distancing, and mandatory wearing of face masks (Government of the Kingdom of Eswatini, 2020).

After this initial partial lockdown lasting for 20 days, restrictions on the movement of people and non-essential business operations were gradually relaxed, and a phased reopening of schools began in July 2020.

The pandemic has had a significant negative impact on Eswatini’s economy and development programs. According to the African Development Bank Group (2021), the economy contracted by 3.2% in 2020, reversing growth of 2.2% in 2019. More than 350,000 learners were affected by school closures (Gwebu, 2021), and accessing distance-learning alternatives was a challenge for learners without Internet, computers, television sets, and radios.

To ease pressure on the health system and allow for the full reopening of the economy, the government aims to vaccinate 80% of the 1.16 million population. The vaccination rollout began in March 2021, and a total of 70,781 vaccine doses had been administered by 4 August 2021 (World Health Organization, 2021). The government’s health response to the pandemic is being supported by development partners, including a U.S. $8 million loan from the World Bank (2021) to purchase vaccines for 40% of the population.

The latest Afrobarometer survey in Eswatini shows that most citizens are satisfied with the government’s efforts to manage the pandemic even though half of them found it difficult to comply with lockdown restriction and most felt that the schools were closed for too long.

But a majority of Emaswati say that government assistance was distributed unfairly, and almost half say they are worried that politicians will take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to increase their power and authority. A majority do not trust the government to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are safe, and only about one-third say they are likely to try to get vaccinated.