When the government initially announced the vaccine strategy in January 2021, foreign nationals were excluded from the eligibility criteria; only South African citizens were allowed to register. However, President Cyril Ramaphosa later announced that the vaccination process would be open to all adults living in South Africa.

The National Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) self‑registration portal currently allows foreign nationals to register for the vaccine using either their passport number or asylum seeker/refugee number. As a student working on the clinical platform (who is also very anxious about COVID‑19), this is considered to be a big step towards lowering SARS‑CoV‑2 hospital admissions and decreasing the pressure of the pandemic on the healthcare system. However, the current government strategy has not yet addressed vaccine inequity affecting all adults living in South Africa.

Vaccinating undocumented immigrants

Although the vaccination strategy will not cover all South Africans by the end of this year, undocumented immigrants form a significant portion of the country’s population. According to a recent statement from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), released on 5 August 2021, 2.2 million people living in South Africa (Census 2011) were born outside the country. However, these statistics do not differentiate between documented and undocumented immigrants and Stats SA can only estimate that about 3.9 million foreign nationals currently reside in South Africa.

“The current government vaccine promotion strategy needs to be more inclusive.”

While the EVDS portal does not have an option for undocumented immigrants to register, they can still walk into a vaccination site and complete the manual process of registering for the vaccine. Unfortunately, this information is not widely available.

The current government vaccine promotion strategy needs to be more inclusive by encouraging the vaccination of undocumented immigrants because there are existing barriers to good healthcare‑seeking behaviors among foreign nationals living in South Africa. This can be aggravated by the lack of reliable information aimed at undocumented immigrants. With less than 2% of the African continent vaccinated, it is also important to note that some international students may experience mixed emotions with being able to get vaccinated while their families back home do not share the same privileges due to inequitable vaccine distribution.

Vaccine solidarity

A recent article published by the Mail & Guardian and on the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) website, and was written by multiple respected scientists such as Professor Glenda Gray (Wits), Professor Yunus Moosa (University of KwaZulu‑Natal), Professor Marc Mendelson (UCT) and others, states that we need to institute mass vaccination quickly to prevent more deaths due to COVID‑19 and severe COVID‑19 infections, which have shown to have lasting complications. It is for this reason that I firmly believe that true vaccine solidarity, which aims to overcome the pandemic, does not exclude people based on their nationality or immigration status.

“We all have a part to play in creating a healthy and just society.”

On an individual level, vaccine solidarity means understanding that vaccination is not just about personal protection; it is about taking the first step with millions of other vaccinated individuals towards overcoming a global pandemic that affects the most vulnerable in our society. These are the elderly population, those living with comorbid medical conditions, and, for me, what is most significant is seeing how COVID‑19 is creating a generation of orphans.

We all have a part to play in creating a healthy and just society, and it begins with us showing empathy through vaccinating, and encouraging our international community to get vaccinated.