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Youth Month, June 2021, the month Nelson Mandela University launched its vaccination programme, will be remembered at our institution, and perhaps the higher education sector, as a critical moment in the ongoing battle to contain and turn the tide against the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the morning of June 14, the university opened its Covid Management and Vaccination Centre and began the important task of vaccinating its staff and members of the neighbouring community, after the Eastern Cape department of health had approved the institution as a Master Facility Covid-19 vaccination public site.

It was moving to hear the cheers all round when the vaccines arrived at the start of our rollout to staff and their spouses in the 60-plus age group, and the public in the same age group as part of phase two of the national vaccination programme.

All 60-plus members of the public living within a 5km radius of our Summerstrand campus, including Summerstrand, Humewood and South End, are eligible to have their vaccinations done on campus.

The university has been planning for this moment for almost a year as we realised much earlier on that the pandemic, which threatened lives and livelihoods globally, was going to be extraordinarily disruptive to higher and other educational institutions in ways not seen in decades.

We resolved then that we must do all we can to save lives and secure the academic year.

We understood and learnt very quickly that overcoming the pandemic is not only going to be a gargantuan task, it is also going to require mobilising partnerships, partnerships within and between universities, between universities and state institutions and the private sector, and between universities and communities.

It became clear as Mandela and sister universities begun experiencing rising infections that containing the spread of the virus on campuses would not be successful without containing the virus in communities and broader society.

And so universities redirected their academic resources in an attempt to understand the science behind the virus and how it caused the Covid-19 disease, how the virus spread and mutated, developing models to track and predict when it will peak, and determining the likely effects on communities and society.

The research and analyses helped to inform how best to contain and manage the virus.

This in turn informed Mandela University’s Covid-19 mitigation strategies, which entailed participating in higher education sector scholarly activities that sought longterm scientific solutions to this and other pandemics; of working closely with government entities, community organisations and civil society to implement effective virus mitigation measures, devising campaigns to combat hunger, and improve health and wellness; and contain the spread of the virus on campus, and ensure all staff and students are vaccinated.

The university is pleased its long-planned vaccination programme has at last been activated, and proud that our north campus has been accredited and declared a public vaccination site.

The Pfizer “two-jab” vaccine is being used and the university’s facilities are well equipped and well organised under the leadership of the respective health and supporting teams.

Our target is to vaccinate up to 500 people a day and a total of 3,000 people over 10 days.

By the end of last week, 66,795 people had been vaccinated in the metro and the metro’s target is 3,000 a day across the 37 public and private vaccination sites.

This has not come a moment too soon as on June 16 there were 298 new cases in the city — double the cases on previous days.

The third wave is upon us and, given the urgency of the situation, we need to vaccinate as many people as possible.

The time frame for student vaccinations that has been given by the national department of health is October; however, this still has to be confirmed.

It is ironic that in Youth Month, after registering no transmission cases among students in months, at least 30 students tested positive in a space of two weeks, and four scheduled mask-to-mask classes had to be suspended and students quarantined.

While the plan to vaccinate staff and students, and implementing a multi-modal or hybrid learning and teaching mode organised to ensure that learning interaction is as rich as possible in the online and digital platforms, the lack of human interaction or social presence remains one of the biggest the higher education sector faces.

Recent reports of a “comprehensive study on the social impact of Covid-19” on students, which found that 65% of students had reported psychological distress in 2020, is telling and of serious concern.

To avoid further disruptions to the academic programme, and ongoing negative effects on students and staff in 2021 and beyond, it is vital we not only vaccinate staff and neighbours, but university students as well, and as soon as possible.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 29 June 2021 written by Prof Sibongile Muthwa, Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University

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