Many Nigerians still believe in the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 vaccination.
Daniel Ogala, an Abuja resident, said he will not take the COVID-19 vaccines that Nigeria recently acquired because he believes it is an orchestrated plan by the ‘Western world’ to monitor Africans.
“When they inject you with the vaccine, a chip will be implanted inside your body and will be used to monitor you,” Mr Ogala, a tailor, said.
Rose Adebowale, a resident of Kubwa, a satellite town in Abuja, gave another twist.
“They told us that if you receive the vaccines, you will be inscribed with the 666 anti-Christ sign,” the woman in her mid-50’s said.
“I will not even go near that evil vaccine.”
Such conspiracy theories are common and thrive due to poor communication and enlightenment by relevant authorities, experts say.
Nigeria on Friday commenced the vaccination of its citizens against COVID-19 after receiving approximately 4 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines on Tuesday.
The rollout started with healthcare workers who are often at the risk of exposure to infections being the first responders to patients.
President Buhari is expected to be vaccinated publicly today.
Health workers and police officers are among those to be vaccinated in the first phase of Nigeria’s vaccine rollout.
But while much attention is focused on the rollout plan, the challenge of false misconceptions about the vaccines have largely been overlooked.
For Nigeria to have an effective vaccination campaign, public health experts say the challenge of actually persuading people to get a shot must be addressed urgently.
Survey on Perception
In the past five days, PREMIUM TIMES put questions on social media platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook asking Nigerians whether they will take the vaccines or not, and the reasons for their answers.
We also took to the streets of Abuja to gather opinions of Nigerians on the vaccines.
About 70 per cent of the 100 respondents said they would not take the vaccines. Their reasons differ but can be linked to their mistrust of government policies and the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Best Okereke, a businessman, said he will not take the vaccines because “I am not ready to be a specimen for vaccine trials in a country like Nigeria.”
“The bottom line is I have absolutely no faith in the Nigerian government because of their lack of transparency in handling the COVID-19 response” said Pius Olumide, a pharmacist. “I just feel like something is not right with the way the government is going about this, so I’m very hesitant.”
Stanley Okafor, who resides in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State, said he will not take the vaccine because he does not feel, “comfortable with it and also I have heard speculations that people that have got the complete dosage still contacted coronavirus.”
Though it is rare, there is a possibility you can still catch COVID-19 after getting vaccinated, but research shows milder symptoms and lower transmission.
Carol Ottaviano, a volunteer for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial in the U.S., is one of a small group of people to test positive for COVID-19 after getting the 95 per cent effective Pfizer vaccines, according to 10News America.
Eugenia Yakubu, a maternal health advocate and author, shared a similar view as Mr Okafor.
“A one off shut will not prevent me from having COVID-19 again. Besides we don’t have enough doses. So, I will rather more vulnerable people take first,” Mrs Yakubu, the author of ‘Motherhood and the fruit of pain’, said.
‘Willing but wary’
While about 30 per cent of the respondents said they are willing to receive the vaccine, most of them said they are particularly wary over several safety concerns raised against the vaccines.
One of the safety concerns is that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines Nigeria received was rejected by South Africa for failing to provide sufficient protection against the new COVID-19 variant in the country.
The AstraZeneca vaccine only provides about 10 per cent protection against mild to moderate COVID-19 disease caused by the South African variant, the Bhekisisa reported. This is way below the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended 50 per cent protection.
Jonathan Kabiru, a student journalist, said he will take the vaccine but said he is worried over how safe they are.
“These safety concerns raised have put some doubt about its effectiveness to a reasonable extent,” he said.
Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist, said he will pass the opportunity to take the vaccine to someone that is not in a position to take the precautionary measures against the pandemic.
Otun Oluwadamilola, a student, said she will take the vaccine only because it seems the only logical thing to do and not because she believes in its potency.
Our survey builds on a growing number of polls which find so many people saying they would not take the coronavirus vaccine thereby putting the potential to tackle the pandemic with the vaccines under threat.
In a study by a research firm, SBM Intel, in all 36 states and the FCT, only 39.9 per cent of Nigerians said they will take the jabs.
The survey, titled: “COVID in Nigeria – The second wave” was published in January. It surveyed people’s perceptions about the existence of COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines.
While 35.9 per cent of the respondents said they will not take the vaccine, 24.1 per cent are unsure of their position yet.
“Like other vaccines, there are mistrust issues associated with the COVID-19 vaccine. In interviews with some respondents who are opposed to the vaccine, we filtered a number of misconceptions about the vaccine. Some respondents held that it is a religious war to contaminate the children of God with evil substances,” the research firm said.
“Some believe that the vaccines are a tool to depopulate Nigeria, while others expressed concern about the effectiveness ratio and the side-effects that the vaccine might have. Some other persons were not completely opposed to the vaccine, but were more concerned with the thoughts of being used as Guinea pigs for drug trials.”
Interestingly, the survey also found that nearly a fifth of Nigerians still do not believe the COVID-19 is real.
Experts weigh in
Many health experts said the general misconceptions and mistrust swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine hesitancy are fuelled by the lack of transparency by the government. They say a massive awareness campaign to enlighten the people should have been flagged off long before the arrival of the vaccines.
“The root of the matter may be the overall public perception of government’s handling of the issues in the country,” said Mr Bassey, an environmentalist and anti-GMO campaigner.
As of May 2020, about N36.3 billion had been raised from local and international support Nigeria received for the fight against COVID-19. Meanwhile, details of how the fund was spent have remained sketchy.
The Accountant-General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, last September stated that over N30 billion, representing 84 per cent of the N36.3 billon, was expended between April 1, 2020, and July 31, 2020, leaving the balance of N5.9 billion.
He, however, did not provide a detailed breakdown of the utilisation nor provide details on plans to spend the balance of N5.9 billion.
“The pandemic response does not stand in isolation. It is immersed in the state of the national healthcare system. It is also immersed in the level of trust the public has in the government and in the overall system. You must agree that in a large self-help system where citizens provide healthcare, electricity, water, security, people tend to behave autonomously. It is time for close scrutiny of what level of trust exists between the governments and the people. If that gap is not fixed, many may, unfortunately, read negative meanings into plans for the vaccine rollout,” said Mr Bassey.
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For Confidence MacHarry, security and health data analyst with SBM intelligence, situational awareness is important.
“So far, the ministry of health and the secretary of the government of the federation have both acknowledged the shortcomings. However more has to be done, especially in the area of drafting religious and political leaders into the fight against vaccine skepticism.”
Oyewale Tomori, a professor of virology, said too much of fake news about the vaccines went unchallenged with facts. “Since they were unconnected or unrefuted, a lot of people believed the fake stories. By the time the counter and correct information came out, most people were set in their belief.”
“Vaccine scepticism is a major obstacle for governments everywhere but the silver lining is that in this pandemic, the worst vaccine skeptic country, France, has witnessed a softening of postures,” said Mr MacHarry.
He said with the right messaging, this will likely occur in Nigeria in the coming weeks.
“I believe with time and when appropriate and proper information is disseminated widely and publicly, making people aware of the benefits of receiving the vaccines, there will be a gradual change of attitude and better acceptance of the vaccine,” said Mr Tomori, a professor.
“Right now, it appears that acceptance will be slow.
“To increase acceptance of the vaccine, the Nigerian leadership, from executive to the legislative and including the high and mighty in industry, academia, and our famous Nollywood actors and musicians should first take the vaccine as a demonstration of the safety of the vaccine.”