Our Vaccination Nations

If you attended our monthly Rumble session last week you will be aware that we spoke vaccines… until some of us (or at least one of us) were completely blue in the face! Malora Keevey’s handy menti.com worked wonders for getting everyone’s general feeling around the vaccine and we were really pleased to see that not only had quite a number of staff on the call already been vaccinated, but that our people are ready to queue for the jab(s). 

What was good to see was the optimistic word cloud we generated when asked to describe in two words what the vaccine means to each of us. Relief, hope, safety, normality and freedom are the words that jumped out.

In fact, these words describe not only how we at Wilderness Safaris feel about the vaccines, but how the world and our guests feel. And this is attested to through the increased bookings and confidence seen in our vaccinated regions, as well as the removal of some countries from the COVID red list.

Rwanda and Kenya have led the charge, followed closely by Zimbabwe, and some of our staff in Namibia and Zambia have also received their first shot. Botswana has secured enough vaccinations for herd immunity, and the roll-out there as well as in South Africa will hopefully be announced soon enough. While as a business we cannot impose vaccinations, we do highly recommend that you are at the front of the queue to receive the vaccine when it becomes available to you. After all we are in the hospitality industry, and welcome travellers from all nations. We do however understand that due to some medical conditions, some staff members are not able to receive the vaccine. This makes it an even more compelling reason to get the vaccine if you can, as you will be helping protect those who cannot.

Going back to our word cloud, there were a couple of words that weren’t so obvious: fearful, daunting and uncertain. Not only is there a lot of fake news circulating (and this is a reminder to all of us to always check information before we simply share it with others) but there have been some genuine reports of blood clots being a side-effect of one or two of the vaccines. However it is imperative to understand the real facts first. For example in the UK, 20 million people received the AstraZeneca vaccine and there have been seven reported cases of blood clots in this group. That is 0.000035% chance of getting a blood clot – and these cases were linked to low blood platelets. There is more risk in getting a blood clot from taking over the counter medication like aspirin.

Lastly, you may have heard in current media that there are still COVID cases sweeping countries that have vaccinated. It is important to note that, while the vaccine doesn’t always protect you 100%, the severity of the illness is drastically reduced if you have had the jab and very few of these incidences have led to hospitalisation. So regardless of vaccine drives, physical distancing, mask wearing and hygiene protocols must remain in place.

If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out to your manager, regional HR head or email our Wellbeing Manager, Malora Keevey on: Malorak@wilderness-safaris.com

But let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth. Ingrid Baas gives us an overview of the experience in Rwanda in our meeting, and she has followed up with the below…

Our camps have been open since August 2020, and we have been operating throughout much of the COVID pandemic. This has meant that we have dealt with many COVID-19 cases in our team, and even some of our guests. In order to be able to receive guests safely, we had to (and still have to) do a lot of testing of staff and guests.

The first doses of the vaccine arrived in Rwanda on 3 March, and I remember there being a lot of excitement as we were one of the first countries in Africa to receive it. We were also pleasantly surprised to find out that hospitality staff were amongst the first in line. Soon after, we received an invitation by SMS with the location and time that we would be vaccinated.

Although some of our team members were a little hesitant to get the vaccine at first, employees who have directly dealt with COVID themselves did not waste a moment, and were at the front of the line.

Now that 99% of our employees are vaccinated it is a huge relief. The testing still happens, but our positive COVID cases have dropped and, since the vaccination, none of our staff has tested positive.

While we still can’t drop our guard, we all feel we can worry a little less about getting infected, or infecting somebody else, especially a loved one. And we can travel too. Excitingly for Rob and I, we are finally visiting our families in the Netherlands after two years. They too are fully vaccinated.   

What has been a thrilling consequence of the vaccine rollout in Rwanda is the increase in bookings. From mid-May onwards we are operating at almost full capacity in our lodges. The news that Rwanda’s tourism industry is fully vaccinated has reached our guests, and they are now eager to come and visit.

Zimbabwe was very quick off the mark to get vaccines rolled out too. Graham, with his usual sense of humour, relays the Victoria Falls experience; our Hwange staff have also had their vaccines, and those Mana Pools staff members who can get to Kariba are also being vaccinated.

Zimbabwe rolled out its vaccination at warp speed – I remember getting the text message that weekend asking for comment from a local journalist on the vaccination rollout of our tourism sector. I thought they were confused as we had not heard even a whisper. I was then sent WhatsApp images of a meeting happening where the Vice Minister was addressing the Health Workers in Vic Falls, and saying that it would start on Monday!

With logistical precision we were allocated vaccination points, asked to spread awareness and were hours away from our first dose to be administered in Victoria Falls. The buzz in the office on Monday was new, something not felt in many a month… people were all talking about Thursday (our day of vaccination) and whether they would get it. “I’m waiting for others, I’m scared of needles, I’m going to say I’m pregnant (said a man)!”  The buzz in me subsided, people were scared, if there wasn’t full buy-in then it would be a flop and the virus would stay dormant in a few and then rise again when people started travelling and we would experience another wave, and another, and another. It confused me – vaccines are a way of life, if you need to get a yellow fever vaccine to travel, people do it without thinking yet here was the chance, using the same tried and tested technology to get our livelihoods back and people were not wanting to.

Fast forward to Thursday and EVERYONE was in the queue, I couldn’t believe it! Staff from our camps that were on leave were present, people were walking in off the street that had seen the nurses, people were messaging to tell others that there was a mobile vaccination post at the Wilderness offices, people were embracing it in full force. Those that were scared sat and had their friends and colleagues cheering them on, those that were wanting to wait were first in the queue, and even the pregnant man was laughing as he showed his left arm, not even a mark he proclaimed!

The buzz was back!

I drove around town the rest of the week and weekend, and there were mobile clinics all over with queues at them – the precision of filling in forms at the first table, jabbed at the second was as efficient as a well-oiled machine. Everyone in town was talking about it and very soon we had reached the necessary numbers for herd immunity on our first dose.

The following weeks saw the rollout in major cities around Zimbabwe, and newspapers and media reported the increase in numbers vaccinated and the decrease in COVID-19 cases! And with the second dose also making a rapid turnaround, the buzz is definitely back – as a nation we are ready for our guests, and for our livelihoods to return!