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WITH a defiant look in his eyes, Usman Salihu,17, said he would not take the COVID-19 vaccine. He was a student of Government Day Secondary, Daneel, in Girei Local Government Area of Adamawa State, North-East Nigeria.
Two weeks ago, Usman Salihu and his teammates had ditched their football game and took to their heels when they sighted a group of people.
Salihu, like the others, had assumed that they were immunisation officials coming to give students the COVID-19 jab.
An estimated 200–250 students were enrolled in the mixed subsidised public school.
“I know that the vaccine kills people, and my parents told me not to take it too. Others even said it at the mosque. So I don’t want to die,” the secondary school student, who was in his fourth year, explained in Hausa.
Maze of lies
Salihu understood pidgin English minimally, but this posed no hindrance to the teenager who created a profile on Facebook — though he used an older version of an Android phone.
Navigating the trails of Facebook posts seemed like a walk in the park since all he had to do was follow posts shared by friends and groups on his timeline on any trending topic.
He stumbled on Facebook posts by several Islamic clerics who claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine was a hoax. However, Salihu held tightly to the claims of the Islamic teachers without any substantive proof.
Jero Bonyo to Daneel is a 3.4miles trek while from Wuro Sani to Daneel is a 5miles walking distance. (The distance between the citadel of learning and the communities where the students live creates the widening of misinformation).
The impressionable teenager joins millions of young Muslims projected to dominate the World’s largest religion by 2060. Northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim with Hausa and Fulani being the dominant ethnic groups.
“To hell with coronavirus! It is useless,” said an agitated Suleiman Ba Kona, a radical Muslim cleric in a YouTube video.
The influential Islamic preacher, whose messages reach over 40,000 Muslims across the country whenever he posts any of his sermons on Youtube, is an antagonist of the vaccine and preaches the non-existence of the coronavirus to his followers.
In a four-minute clip that garnered over 41,000 views, Ba Kona affirmed that the coronavirus was a trick deployed by enemies of the people. He threatened to place generational curses on officials behind the lockdown restrictions in the country. A few seconds later, he carried out his threats.
An earlier video uploaded on 24 March 2020 with over 69,000 views showed the cleric encouraging his followers not to obey the COVID-19 precautions.
Ba Kona’s sermons were only a few out of more than a dozen conspiracy theories spun by other religious leaders about the virus— at a time, global death records from the virus were on the increase.
Misinformed by the ‘informed’
For 16-year old Kulchini Iliya, her resolve to avoid immunisation was a product of the opinions of healthcare givers, unlike Salihu, whose convictions about the vaccine were influenced by religious conspiracy theorists.
She heard in a radio programme what the preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus were but at the primary healthcare centre in her village, the nurses said COVID–19 was non-existent.
This contradicted the information from the radio programme.
Iliya was left with a binary decision: Either to believe what she heard on the radio or accept the nurse’s verdict. She chose the latter.
“They said it (vaccine) kills people. So that is why I also ran away the day we saw those people that looked like immunisation officials,” she said.
Since then, discussions about the virus and vaccine have been among the hot topics for Iliya and her friends during their regular walks back home to Wuro Sani— a village more than three miles away from school.
The student, who was preparing to sit for the West African Examination Council Ordinary Level Examination in August, said none of her friends was willing to take the vaccine.
And just like Iliya, Edison Enoch, 43, a civil servant who just moved to the community with his family, after he received his first vaccine dose in Yola —the state capital— was discouraged from taking his second dose of the shot.
“I went to collect my second dose, and a doctor at the primary healthcare centre told me that he was yet to take it and didn’t trust the vaccine.
” Coming from a medical practitioner, it is discouraging for me,” Enoch said.
Also, the fear that the jab is a ‘killer drug’ increases the uncertainties surrounding the vaccine’s side effects on children. Public health analyst and researcher Bridget Nwagbara, a doctor, said “the known potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh the known and potential risks.” This position is also held by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Compared to far-to reach communities like Girei, the outlook is different for children and parents living within the state capital. Based on COVID-19 immunisation data provided by state public health expert, over 12,000 people have received their first shot of the vaccine.
“We record about 20- 30 persons get their COVID–19 shots daily. The majority are taking their second shot, while some are just receiving the first,” said nurse Lucas Domgelma at the Federal Medical Centre, Yola, in an interview with this journalist.
Domgelma, whose duties is with the public health department of the hospital, said the ‘injurious’ positions of some healthcare practitioners towards the vaccination process was ‘no surprise.’
“Due to their religious sentiments, some medical personnel do not believe in immunising children. So I am not surprised at all,” he said.
For effective statewide innoculation exercise to be achieved, Domgelma said that vaccine awareness programmes should also target medical personnel.
Although children and teenagers are not significant casualties in this pandemic, misinformation and misleading opinions of authority figures might ultimately affect this group’s reception of the COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria.
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site.