First Impressions from Eswatini

IsraAID’s team is on the ground in Eswatini, supporting the government as they develop a COVID-19 vaccination program that puts community needs first

Two women greeted us as we entered the arrivals terminal in Eswatini’s airport, at their post to check COVID-19 tests, and ensure that all those entering the small southern African country had negative results. After our long journey of four airports on three continents, complicated by airport shutdowns and limited flight options, showing our PCR test results felt routine. At this point, the sheets of paper with the word “NEGATIVE” were as important as our passports, if not more so.

As IsraAID staff based in Tel Aviv, we are all fortunate to already be vaccinated. The date of our inoculation appears above the PCR results on that same piece of paper. Immediately, upon looking at our paperwork, the two women looked at us, confused.

“Why are you wearing masks, if you’re already vaccinated?”

“Why do you need PCR results, if you’re already vaccinated?”

“I’m pregnant—is it safe for me to get vaccinated?”

These questions encapsulate why we’re here in Eswatini. They are an echo of the same questions being asked all over the world, as the pandemic discourse shifts toward vaccination rollouts. In the case of Eswatini, the government requested that we provide our support to the local Ministry of Health here on the ground, advising on the campaign and offering lessons learned from IsraAID’s work with affected communities in 16 countries around the world over the last year. Our mission to Eswatini is supported by the Kirsh Foundation, led by Natie Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.

There are of course many critical considerations for planning vaccine campaigns. The most obvious is simply having enough vials and syringes. Eswatini is in a very good place in this regard, thanks to allocations from a variety of equity-driven initiatives, from COVAX, to the African Union, and other donors, who are providing hundreds of thousands of doses of the Astra Zeneca, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

In addition to sticking needles in arms, an immense amount of operational function is needed on the backend. This includes transporting and storing the vaccines at low temperatures, ensuring that each patient gets the correct type of vaccine in the correct timescale, and confirming that capacities transitioned toward COVID-19 inoculation don’t leave medical centers paralyzed and unable to treat other health concerns. For example, Eswatini has the highest HIV rates in the world. It is essential that resources are not rerouted from providing ongoing care for HIV patients toward COVID-19, but rather both can happen in parallel.

Another critical aspect is ensuring that the public knows about the vaccines they are to receive, the potential side effects, and the benefit to ensuring everyone gets in line for their shot. So, just to be clear, in accordance with the medical experts who are on our team: we continue wearing masks after vaccination because no one is safe from COVID-19 transmission until everyone is safe. PCR results can in fact be positive after vaccination, but it is extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms and becoming ill once inoculated. And yes, the vaccine is safe for pregnant women.

With these complexities in mind, the IsraAID team is here in Eswatini to provide support on each of these fronts. Just as with any of our projects around the world, we’re focused on a holistic approach, that recognizes the various systems at play, leverages local assets in filling gaps, and works closely with communities to overcome these challenges.

You can support IsraAID’s work here.

Follow our progress in Eswatini here on IsraAID’s blog and on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.