President Ramaphosa’s speech (11 January) heightened the emotions around the vaccine debate and added to the already high levels of negativity.

These are the results of an ongoing study done by the Gross National Happiness team (Prof Talita Greyling (University of Johannesburg), Dr Stephanie Rossouw (Auckland University of Technology), in collaboration with Afstereo)). They developed the GNH (Happiness Index), which is a real-time measure of the mood of a nation.  They construct the index by making use of the sentiment derived from tweets. Recently the team expanded their research to also include the analysis of the underlying emotions of tweets. They differentiate between eight emotions; anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise and trust

The debate around the vaccine is rampant on all media platforms, especially social media.  Considering Twitter, we notice that the number of tweets per day related to vaccines have increased by more than 900 per cent, since 1 December 2020 (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of Vaccine related tweets (7 day moving average)

The debate is mainly about: i) “to be vaccinated or not”, ii) will the government be able to procure the vaccines and how many dosages will they procure, iii) when will the vaccines be available in South Africa, iv) can government fund/afford the vaccines, v) who will get the vaccines and who will be prioritised, vi) will people be forced to take the vaccine, vii) how will the vaccination process be rolled out vii) how will corruption related to the rollout be limited.

The vaccine debate fuels negative emotions, which are already higher than the norm.  We saw that during Covid times negative emotions increased, going hand in hand with a decrease in positive emotions.  From our analyses it seems that it is mainly due to dramatic societal changes, the loss of loved ones, isolation of staying at home, loneliness due to social distancing measures, fear of contracting the virus, financial hardships and lately the negative emotions related to the uncertainty around the vaccines.  

If we compare the emotions related to vaccines to the general emotion levels experienced during Covid times, we find the biggest differences in the negative emotions, namely; anger, fear and sadness.  Figure 2 shows that anger related to vaccines is 46 per cent higher, fear is 92 per cent higher and sadness is 43 per cent higher than the general levels.  We also notice that anticipation has increased markedly and joy has decreased (the emotion trust considers both positive and negative trust, thus it is challenging to interpret the net effect).

Figure 2: A comparison between the emotions related to vaccines and the general levels of emotions

What drives the negative emotions? From our research it seems that the negative emotions are mainly driven by uncertainty, a lack of information, people driving conspiracy theories, negative attitudes such as racism and xenophobia, the constant news updates on Covid numbers and deaths, mistrust of the vaccine and the politicization of the pandemic. See a few examples of the tweets related to vaccines below:

Tweets related to Vaccines

the Vaccibne is from the Satan – working via Bill Gates to rule the World

The way these satanists are shoving this vaccine crap down our throats. Why cant they bring us vaccines for poverty, landless and inequality

Didnt the one say they will inject the 666 beast into us using the vaccine

the pcr test is a problem. They will test you positive (false +), inject you with vaccine and claim covid killed you and later recommend the suitable vaccine. These people want to eradicate the black nation.

Government officials: you said "don't steal the vaccine money" but you did not say anything about not stealing the vaccine itself.

My biggest fear is that City Of JHB and Matjhabeng are going to issue out vaccine tenders. A 3rd party service provider with no medical experience will be appointed and paid in advance to roll it out.

Do not trust it as it became available to quickly

I dont think Ill take this mysterious vaccine that was developed in less than a year!

There's no way we can avoid the planned vaccine to our nation, looking at these variants virus, what happened to flu, cold and fever!  we will be forced to vaccine.

We don't want that dem vaccine, take it with your families and no one will force us to take bcoz hey if we are forced to take it then Union building will be on fire and SA will never be the same again. You government mustn't think we stupid

You are discouraging a vaccine cos of your personal opinion. People are dying but your personal opinion matters over science. You should be ashamed!


What is the effect of these negative emotions? We know that to increase the well-being of people it is of utmost importance to increase their positive emotions. Research has shown that people that are positive and satisfied with their lives have increased levels of productivity, better labour market performance, are healthier, are better learners and have better social relationships.  The opposite is true for negative emotions.  As the negative emotions in South Africa is already rife, it is of utmost importance that these negative emotions are recognised and addressed, so that the economy, health and social well-being of people improve.

To address the negative emotions. full information and transparency related to the vaccine is needed. Additionally, given that anti-vaccine groups often use negative emotional appeals in their campaigns, it is important to bring public awareness to the tactics used by these groups, thus government and media should help to “inoculate” the public against misinformation by presenting the hard facts.

Government should counterbalance the negative emotions with positive emotional appeals, so that mistrust, racism, xenophobia and exposure to misinformation is limited.  Messages about vaccines should be framed in a positive manner, thus the positive outcome of a vaccine should be emphasised, which can increase the emotions of joy and hope. Moreover, an earnest appeal should be made to all community, religious, labour union and political leaders to enforce these positive emotions.


Prof Talita Greyling (talitag@uj.ac.za)

Wellbeing Economist, University of Johannesburg, Board of directors International Society of Quality of Life Studies, Co-editor Journal of Happiness Studies and Applied Research in Quality of life.

Dr Stephanié Rossouw (stephanie.rossouw@aut.ac.nz)

Wellbeing Economist, Auckland University of Technology, Vice-President Finance for International Society of Quality of Life Studies, Editor Journal of Happiness Studies. 

Technical Support by AFSTEREO.

Actions: E-mail | Permalink |