How do South Africans feel about the covid-19 vaccine?
South Africa has administered over 100 000 covid-19 vaccines thus far to frontline healthcare workers. The government has an ambitious goal of vaccinating 67% of the population by the end of 2021. Achieving that goal will require two-thirds of the population to be willing to take the vaccine, which makes it crucial to know the sentiments people hold towards the vaccine. An analysis of just under 1 000 tweets posted in the first two months of this year reveals that South Africans expressed more positive sentiments about the vaccine than negative ones.
Sentiment analysis is an application of natural language processing (NLP) that is used to get an understanding of opinions by analysing text data. In this instance, we analyse individual tweets and categorise the overall sentiment expressed in the tweet as being positive, negative, or neutral. To make these classifications we used the VADER¹ model. The model was specifically designed for analysing the sentiments in social media text. It is among the best performing models for analysing tweets, and even accounts for the sentiment expressed by the emojis used!
Among the 975 vaccine related tweets² posted in South Africa during January and February 2021, 38% expressed an overall positive sentiment. The image on the left below illustrates the most prominent words contained in tweets that expressed positive sentiments. Tweets expressing negative sentiments accounted for 34% of the tweets. In the image on the right, the most common words used in tweets expressing negative sentiments are shown. The small difference between the degree of positivity and negativity demonstrates that, at least based on this sample, the topic of vaccines is a polarising one. The remaining 28% of the tweets expressed a neutral sentiment.
The polarity observed in this simple sentiment analysis is consistent with other surveys conducted. For instance, in a survey conducted by Ipsos³ for the World Economic Forum at the end of January 2021, 31% of South Africans said they would get the vaccine if available, while 25% said they would not. It will be important to observe how these sentiments change over time and as the vaccine rollout extends beyond frontline workers. Since vaccination will likely remain optional, one would hope to see positive sentiments trend towards 67%.
The code I used to conduct the analysis and produce the graphics can be found in my repository here: https://github.com/ValentineChisango/SouthAfricaVaccineSentiments
 For more information about the VADER model, read the paper by Hutto, C. and E. Gilbert: https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM14/paper/view/8109/8122
 The tweets were sourced from: [http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4603998]
 The Ipos survey results can be found here: [https://www.ipsos.com/en/global-attitudes-covid-19-vaccine-january-2021]