Picture: Unicef South Africa – An outreach vaccination site in Phoenix, north of Durban, South Africa. One can argue that university students in the era of Covid-19 are reduced to bare life and have become subjects of bureaucracy, as their access to the facilities is determined by vaccination certificates, the writer says.
By Kabelo Motswagae
The low immunisation rates during most pandemics particularly Covid-19 are often linked to vaccine hesitancy, as it is argued that the youth believes that they are immune from being infected.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has argued that students and youth across the globe are vaccine hesitant, which is understood as the refusal of vaccines regardless of their availability. However, was this the case for South African university students?
The 2021 academic year saw most universities in South Africa declare themselves mandatory vaccination sites as a way of restoring a sense of normalcy.
I commend our university for adopting the policy of mandatory vaccination, as this was to ensure the recourse to contact classes because online learning has proven not to be conducive to students. However, this policy was one-sided because it lacks the input of students.
As a result, like the three blind men analysing an elephant, officials in universities have contributed to epistimicide, as they have implemented the biomedical approach of mandatory vaccine policy while curtailing the views of students about the policy. In this regard, the knowledge of students has not been valued.
Thus, one can argue that university students in the era of Covid-19 are reduced to bare life and have become subjects of bureaucracy, as their access to the facilities is determined by vaccination certificates.
The Mail and Guardian article by Marcia Zali argues that some students from the Witwatersrand University (Wits) and the University of Joburg (UJ) in the province of Gauteng, South Africa, have vaccinated out of fear of being deregistered and losing access to some of the facilities.
Is the university a place that empowers students to be catalysts of social change or subjects?
Students were not involved in the formulation and implementation of this policy instead they have been left with no option but to comply and vaccinate. For instance, there might be a university student who only believes that the attainment of tertiary education can translate into economic prosperity. As a result, these students irrespective of their input resort to complying by vaccinating.
It is known that UJ has made an exception for students who cannot vaccinate for religious reasons and those who were partially vaccinated, however they are alienated, as they did not attend physical graduations and have access to some facilities.
The executive communique has shown that 91 percent of UJ undergraduate students have complied with the mandatory vaccination policy. This is a demonstration that the university has implemented its vaccination policy successfully.
However, in the quantitative research I conducted, most students in the faculty of Humanities had negative views regarding Covid-19 mandatory vaccinations. For instance, some students agreed with the statement that vaccines cause infertility while others believed that it was a way for pharmaceuticals to make money.
“The People’s Science”
In Covid-19 and Custom in Rural South Africa, Leslie Bank and Nelly Sharpley argue that although the spread of Covid-19 was levelled in the rural areas in Eastern Cape, the root cause was the failure of the South African government to collaborate with rural communities. This was understood to be the people’s science.
For this reason, communities were subjected to biomedical approaches foreign to them and they then disregarded the restrictions implemented by the government.
For example, Bank and Sharpley argue that the successful alleviation of Ebola in West Africa has been attributed to the “people’s science” as there was the co-operation of health authorities and communities.
The need for a diverse epistemological intervention in addressing pandemics
“In this epoch of liquidity modernity, how do we promote the art of gathering just interpretations about the phenomena that surround us? Then use these interpretations as agents of social agents,” says Eugene T Richardson.
Based on the view of Richardson, one could argue that there should be conviviality between scientific and social sciences when addressing epidemics and pandemics
The hegemony of university officials must be evaluated, resulting in a collaboration between them and the students. Although biomedicine is glorified particularly in the era of Covid-19 it has proven to have limits thus students and staff at UJ continued to wear masks regardless of vaccination.
It would be an oversimplified premise to argue that the transmission of Covid-19 ended after vaccines were introduced. However, what if indigenous medicines and knowledge possessed by students were also incorporated into the fight against Covid-19?
Biomedicine cannot be decoupled with social aspects becomes the former impinges on the latter.
For instance, most studies regarding Covid-19 mandatory vaccines found that the views of populations regarding vaccines were influenced by the level of their religiosity, concerns about vaccines containing ingredients such as porcine deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) which were prohibited in the Muslim community decreased their chance to vaccinate
If universities do not invite the input of students in the implementation of mandatory vaccine policy, we will continue to see the repressive behaviour of university officials and not the purported deviant behaviour of students.
As it is believed that students have resorted to buying vaccination certificates to gain access to the premises, this shows that the sidedness formation of the policy has not addressed the problem, it has enabled students to deviate from the regulations.
This also means that the goal of herd immunity of university students is yet to be reached if they are not invited to the formation of the policy regarding mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations.
In conclusion, Covid-19 vaccination has played a role in curbing the spread of the pandemic, but the response to pandemics in future requires policymakers to move beyond the epistemological gaze of biomedicine and the north and involve communities in this context students.
Motswagae is an Urban Studies BA Honours student at the University of Johannesburg.