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Widespread vaccination holds the key to breaking the cycle of lockdowns

TWO of the greatest passion points in the world are music and sport. There’s nothing that draws a crowd like a sporting event, concert or festival. And it has become increasingly clear to me that the only path back to those events is through mass vaccination.

We know that vaccines are contentious for some – there is a lot of misinformation out there about their efficacy and safety and there are fears that they haven’t been sufficiently tested. But all of the evidence suggests – and there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate this – that they are not only vital to saving millions of lives, but the only hope we have of achieving a post-Covid-19 world.

Without vaccines and mass vaccination, we can expect to go through cycle after cycle of our health system being overwhelmed by severely ill people, and thousands of lives lost, which means rolling lockdowns.

Lockdowns have a devastating effect on our mental health, with increased depression and anxiety, on our physical health, with lack of access to routine health services and decline in physical activity, and also on the economy in terms of loss of livelihoods – which leads to increased inequality, extreme poverty, social unrest, increased crime and anti-social behaviour.

The cultural and creative workers of South Africa have been hard hit by the pandemic. The sector employs about 1.2 million people, all of whom went from 100% to no revenue whatsoever overnight.

There was a complete and total ban on gatherings, which meant no cultural or creative expression, and there was no way for the industry to mitigate this. It wasn’t something we could plan for – it was an immediate shock.

At first, artists responded by livestreaming, but it’s not a revenue driver. It just allows fans to connect with their favourite artists and remain relevant. Ask any athlete or artist and they will tell you that the pinnacle of their careers is to perform in front of people, to be cheered on. Playing in an empty stadium or performing to a camera is just not the same.

At the time we thought it would be weeks, then it was months, and now we’re into year two, and there’s been no respite. The most people we’ve been able to have in a venue is 500, and that barely covers the cost of the infrastructure needed to host a large event.

Being deprived of cultural and sporting events has taken a massive toll on South Africa as a whole – and if you think they don’t matter, think about events like the Cricket World Cup, Rugby World Cup, FIFA World Cup, British and Irish Lions Tour, Cape Town Cycle Tour, Cape Town Sevens, and Two Oceans Marathon for starters – all of which we’ve hosted. They all play a vital role in building social cohesion, encouraging active and healthy lifestyles, and promoting South Africa to the world.

When you think about tradition, culture and values – sport and music are at the heart of that. And how often has sport inspired a nation?

But there’s a huge economic impact too. Cultural and creative services contribute more than R74.4 billion a year to the South African economy. They also have a multiplier impact, because they generate tourism, increase retail spending in host city economies, contribute towards the production of goods and services for consumption at events and in host cities, and create employment for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and low-income households. If you take that into account, the cultural economy accounted for R241.8bn or an equivalence of 5.6% of GDP.

Tourism contributes about R400 billion to the economy every year, and events are a substantial contributor – because people travel to go to concerts, business meetings, sporting events, weddings, exhibitions, conferences, and so on, in what has been labelled the “experiential economy”.

Tourism employs about 800 000 people, so the pandemic has affected two million people in the two industries combined – industries that collectively contribute about R500 billion or 10% of GDP (not including the multiplier effect) to the economy each year and employ 15% of the country’s workers.

Widespread vaccination means our healthcare systems and hospitals won’t be overrun and pushed beyond capacity. People who are vaccinated have a lower risk of transmitting the virus to other people. That means we can manage our caseloads, and gradually reopen our society.

At the moment, I can’t go and watch my son or daughter participate in sport, because no spectators are allowed. Our kids can’t see their friends and have normal childhoods. The third wave is imminent – which brings with it the anxiety of whether the elderly in your family will make it through this next wave. Education has been disrupted for every child in this country, and thousands of excess deaths have been reported.

We simply are not going to reopen society unless we vaccinate and do so to the right levels. We need to take the emotive discussions and fake news out of the equation, and trust that the global experts who have studied vaccine technology for years with funding from multilateral institutions, who have approved vaccines after conducting large scale trials, and who have administered these vaccines to hundreds of millions of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds have done their jobs in a professional and ethnical manner with the appropriate clinical oversight.

We need every person to play their part – because we can’t reach herd immunity without you. We have to achieve this together: government can’t do it alone.

Every person who signs up makes us all a step closer to a shared goal. Every person and every vaccine counts, and the faster we all get vaccinated, the sooner we will be free to do the things we all love to do – practise our faith, see friends and family, return to studying, travel and enjoy sport and culture.

This is a great example of where we can heed Nelson Mandela’s words that our choices should reflect our hopes, not our fears. There is no other way to get to the other side of this.

- Justin Van Wyk

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