While many governments are undertaking ambitious campaigns to persuade people to get vaccinated against Covid, Zimbabwe’s president has gone a step further, threatening to punish those who do not take offered doses.
“You are not going to be forced to be vaccinated, but the time shall come when those who are not vaccinated won’t get jobs,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Wednesday.
Even something as simple as taking a local bus will be forbidden for those who aren’t vaccinated, he said.
The threats come even as the country of 15 million is struggling to secure doses for people who want to be immunized.
Zimbabwe received a donation of 200,000 doses from the Chinese vaccine maker Sinopharm, and a further 600,000 doses are expected to arrive in the country early March. Additionally, the country is set to receive more than 1.1 million doses as part of the Covax program, which is distributing vaccines to poor and middle-income countries in an effort to help address global inequities.
Zimbabwe’s frontline health workers are the first in line for vaccination, but as the campaign kicked off in recent days, some resisted the vaccine — voicing particular skepticism about the doses from China.
“I personally won’t accept to be vaccinated,” said Linet Sithole, a nurse in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. “It is my choice.”
She said she was concerned about the dearth of information about the Chinese vaccine and potential side effects.
Mr. Mnangagwa, addressing supporters in Matabeleland Province, called such concerns unfounded and noted that after the nation’s vice president had the first jab, “he is still here.”
The president, who has yet to be inoculated himself, stopped short of making vaccinations mandatory.
Still, his threats were criticized by some observers as both autocratic and unwise — threatening to further undermine confidence in vaccines that have been proven to be safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death.
Rashweat Mukundu, a researcher at International Media Support, a group focused on debunking false information in the media across African, said Mr. Mnangagwa’s message would bolster fears that the Zimbabwean government has “weaponized Covid-19 and has failed to see this as a public health issue.”
“For me, the message on compulsory vaccination suits the trend we have been seeing, which is Covid-19 as a political tool of control,” he said. “Vaccination is important but must be as a result of public awareness and confidence building, and not threats.”
“We have groups in Zimbabwe who for cultural, religious reasons may not opt for vaccination, and their rights must be respected,” he added.
But Tafadzwa Mugwadi, the director of information for the governing Zimbabwe Africa National Union Patriotic Front, said it was a matter of national security.
“Let that be categorical that those who will deny vaccination will be a risk to others and national security,” he said.
While official statistics on the virus are not regarded as capturing the true scope of the pandemic, Zimbabwe has recorded more than 1,400 deaths since the outbreak of the disease.