Recently, there are glimpses of hope globally in terms of vaccines to curtail the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the news of the vaccine breakthrough has not been received with the expected acceptance that is commensurate to the losses and risks which has led to the death of millions globally. There are a few reliable studies on Covid-19 vaccine attitudes in Nigeria, but preliminary surveys and observation of community trends suggest that large groups of people are skeptical and wary.
Conspiracy theories, mistrust, unverified communication, and a host of many other factors have contributed to the flourishing of skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines in Nigeria, which on the other hand is posing potential dangers to future vaccination and immunization campaigns. Alongside access to vaccines, “fake news” posed one of the largest challenges to this country’s future campaign. This anti-vaccine sentiment linked to the Covid-19 vaccine is often fed by rumors spread on social media like wildfire in Nigeria and this is another lapse on which the pandemic will thrive on.
Conspiracy theories — saying that COVID-19 is human-made or that it does not exist at all vary widely by country. Less compliance with protective measures such as hand-washing, wearing of face masks abound in Nigeria as most people perceive the threat of the virus as exaggerated.
People have told themselves that it isn’t an illness that affects black people… “Our government is scam…They are saying there is coronavirus in Nigeria just to make money”…” We are seeing reports of serious side-effects from people who took the shot and they still want to bring the vaccine to us,”. These are a few of the expressions and reactions of the average populace extracted as it relates to COVID-19.
These developments are unfortunate, but they are also not unusual. Although hesitancy about new vaccines is common, however the phenomenon has grown “much worse”. Vaccine skepticism had been growing even before the pandemic, but the fact that life-saving vaccination has become a partisan issue is indeed an unfortunate development.
We saw this in the HIV pandemic. We saw this in the Ebola situation. When vaccines were first introduced for Ebola, it was not obvious that the communities were going to receive them due to the high — rate concomitant skepticism. From the previous situations, the initial hesitancy to receive the vaccines is predictable but these are usually followed by higher confidence as more people are immunized.
The suspicion of government elites and vaccine misinformation play a role. One prevalent conspiracy theory, for example, holds that the Covid-19 vaccines are designed to quell Africa’s population growth. A lot of the people believe that COVID-19 is a planned event by foreign actors, and a large other believe that people in Africa were being used as “guinea pigs” in vaccine trials.
Medical anthropologists have said that the brutal legacy of the slave trade, plus a history of heavy-handed governments, may explain vaccine hesitancy. ‘Nigerians don’t forget easily’. Remember the deaths of 11 Nigerian children in 1996, after they were administered an experimental meningitis vaccine? (brand name withheld). We have not forgotten either’.
To curtail this risk imposing realities in Nigeria and Africa, deliberate actions are urgently needed to be taken by actors from all quarters such as Governments, social influencers, community leaders, individuals, organized influence groups and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs). Because a significant proportion of the public is skeptical about the safety of a corona virus vaccine, political leaders can rebuild trust through the following ways:
Deliberate strategies and campaigns such as launching vaccine information campaign to allay concerns of citizens who view new COVID-19 vaccines as less safe than other vaccines, should be created to reassure citizens that the vaccines can promote global health, especially in low-income countries.
Governments need to proactively engage vaccine-hesitant citizens through a number of independent strategies to avoid composite resistance and difficulties in tackling misconceptions in countries where trust in government is low. While accepting available vaccine to stall the rise in death tolls of citizens, leaders must consistently demand for and uphold rigorous scientific standards in launching any COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
With respect to building confidence, that is work that must be continuous, and it is our collective work. Partnerships with reputable independent media by government should be activated to amplify the necessity of the vaccination and benefits to the people. More surveys would be necessary as rollouts continue across the continent.
Arrowhead strategy to tackle misinformation about vaccines on social media through the engagement of social media influencers. Momentum would be gained with more acceptance if popular influencers would line up for the shots and lend their voices and create a buzz around vaccination in a bid to influence their followers to align.
Lastly, health experts should continuously synergize with community influencers to continually sensitize the communities to ward off skepticism and bolster acceptance for the safety of all. There is also a need for continuous surveillance of the progress as the roll out vaccines continues.
By Phillips Ahulo.