By Kelechukwu IRUOMA
CHIAMAKA Ani was at the Uruan Local Government Secretariat of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in Akwa Ibom State in South-South Nigeria when health workers from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) arrived to administer coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine on corps members.
Upon seeing the health workers, Ani, who is a member of NYSC, a programme established by the Federal Government to involve Nigerian graduates in nation-building and the development of Nigeria, became afraid.
“I did not take [the vaccine] because I was confused,” the 23-year-old said.
“I never had anyone explain to me what the vaccine was all about and if there were any side effects after receiving it,” she said, stressing that some of the COVID-19 vaccine misinformation she received on social media discouraged her. “I saw some conspiracy theories on WhatsApp status, Facebook and Instagram about the vaccine.”
COVID-19 is caused by acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which was first identified in the city of Wuhan, China, and reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2019.
Nigeria confirmed its first case on February 27, 2020. The virus was later declared a pandemic by the WHO on March 11, 2020, as the number of cases and deaths continued to increase globally.
Scientists began to team up with pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines that would reduce the spread of the virus. Vaccines have been identified as the best method of preventing and controlling viral diseases. According to the WHO, there are vaccines developed to protect people from at least 20 diseases.
There was, however, a breakthrough in the development of vaccines, which were distributed to countries, including Nigeria, to vaccinate their population.
But Nigerians, especially those in rural communities, are not willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to misinformation, leaving them susceptible to the virus.
More than 170 million people have been infected with the virus globally as at June 4, according to the WHO, of which three million people have been confirmed dead as at June 2.
In Nigeria, about 166, 000 people have been infected with the virus and 2, 000 people have died, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
In March 2021, Nigeria received 3.94 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and aimed at vaccinating 20 per cent of the population.
The Nigerian government said it planned to vaccinate 40 per cent of its total population in 2021, with an additional 30 per cent in 2022 and aimed to vaccinate at least 70 per cent of the country’s population.
The vaccines were immediately distributed to various states with the NPHCDA assigned the responsibility to vaccinate Nigerians, starting with frontline healthcare workers.
“I will not be willing to receive the vaccine because I don’t really have factual reasons [I should],” Ani said. “A lot of people perceive the vaccine to be substandard. People do not know if the vaccine is the right one.”
How COVID-19 misinformation spreads
Misinformation has been spreading across social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp about how harmful the vaccine is when taken.
There was misinformation that the Messenger RNA vaccines developed for COVID-19 changes the DNA.
Many people said they were afraid to take the vaccine because they did not believe in the existence of COVID-19 in Nigeria.
“I won’t take [the vaccine] because I do not believe in the virus,” said Judith Ohakwe. “I do not believe we have it here [in Nigeria].”
Ohakwe said she received several messages on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, making her not to believe that the virus was present in the country.
“The messages were mostly voice notes shared to me privately and on WhatsApp groups I belonged to. I saw several Facebook posts,” Ohakwe said, stressing she no longer had access to the messages.
She received several conspiracy theories that influenced her decision to not believe the existence of the COVID-19.
“You might not necessarily believe in it [conspiracy theory], but it has a way of creating fear in you,” she said.
“Since I will still be alive, even though I will not take the vaccine, there is no point. Let me live my normal life. If death comes, I will die.”
The lack of trust in the Nigerian government has been referenced as a significant factor discouraging Nigerians from taking the vaccine.
“I do not believe that the Nigerian government will be so compassionate to give us the vaccine [for free], considering what is happening presently in the country. Nigeria does not love its citizens to give us vaccines,” Ohakwe continued.
“I know that President Buhari does not like us, I do not believe anything that comes from the administration. Had it been we had a good president that we believe in, if he says anything, we will believe him. Because we have someone like Buhari, I do not believe in vaccines.”
This is not the first time Nigerians have refused vaccines to reduce the spread of disease. The Kick Polio out of Africa Campaign led to the rejection of polio vaccination in northern Nigeria following misinformation by northern leaders that the vaccine was contaminated with antifertility agents (estradiol hormone), HIV, and cancerous agents.
This brought the immunisation campaign to a halt as leaders called on parents not to allow their children to be immunised. It took years for the government to debunk the misinformation.
In 2017, misinformation about the Nigerian Army injecting children with vaccines that inflicted monkeypox spread in South-East Nigeria, disrupting the immunisation programme of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Implications of COVID-19 misinformation
An epidemiologist and technical assistant to the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19 Onyebuchi Onovo said the spread of misinformation, which had influenced the people to reject the vaccines, would prolong the fight against COVID-19 in Nigeria.
“Vaccine is a lifesaver and it has been proven to be so over time,” he said. “The low uptake of the vaccine means that the virus will continue to linger or continue to be within the population.”
He said one of the best strategies of addressing COVID-19 misinformation was giving out credible information at the right time and through the right sources, which included the government, religious leaders, and traditional rulers.
“These are people at the local levels who have presence and influence. If a traditional ruler comes out to say that these vaccines are safe and I encourage you to receive them, of course, the majority of the followers will receive them. The same with a religious leader.”
Ani said unless she was well enlightened and sensitised, she would not take the vaccine, adding that there was a lack of awareness on the part of the government and health workers.
“The mistake they [health workers] made was to send the vaccine to people without enlightening them and telling those more about the vaccine,” she said. “I feel there should be proper awareness about getting people convinced before bringing the vaccine to rural areas.”
This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme in partnership with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), and Africa Uncensored.