How Misinformation and Insecurity Affect Covid-19 Vaccine Reception in Borno State

By Jack Vincent Fidelis

IN 2019, the last day of December heralded not just a new year, 2020, but the emergence of the novel Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) in Wuhan, China. The spread of the resultant pandemic to virtually all parts of the world has had social and economic consequences for governments and people in the global north and south. The need to expedite action in combating the scourge became apparent as scientists took to their labs in search of the desired antidote to the malady. Good reason the manufacture, distribution and use of vaccines to prevent infection couldn’t have come at a better time.

The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Nigeria on the 27th of February, 2020, and  less than two months later, the first case in Borno was reported l.
Before April 18th of when Borno’s index case was reported, residents in the largely embattled region were apprehensive. The pandemic, they feared, would only aggravate the security challenges they have had to contend with since the second half of 2009 when Boko Haram insurgency redefined the communal existence of the people including their access to basic healthcare.

Covid-19, undoubtedly, disrupted a way of life that was already marred by the consequences of violent extremism in the region. The imposition of a total lockdown by the government, for instance, to prevent the spread of the disease meant that the people, especially petty traders, couldn’t go out to fend for themselves while it lasted; even though a large number of poor people depended on these petty businesses for their livelihood.

Initial Compliance to Covid-19 Regulations

The fear of contracting the disease and the need to prevent the spread of Covid-19 made people, in the early days, adhere to safety regulations like the proper wearing of face masks, hand-washing with soap and use of sanitizer, adherence to social distancing and so on. 

Subsequently, the Borno State Covid-19 Response Committee had on May 13, 2020, announced an indefinite suspension of the lockdown in Maiduguri. The press statement through which the suspension  was announced said government observed the exercise for an initial 14-day total lockdown period which started from the 22nd of April. That the decision was reached because of significant progress made in the fight against the dreaded disease and the stringent measures taken by the government which, within the time under review, had yielded the desired results. 

The interpretation the people made of this was different from what the government intended. This is because social distancing and the proper use of face masks and other safety guidelines were flouted almost immediately, as the excitement died down with the passage of time and the life experiences of the people, thereby giving way, in the process, to disillusionment and a plethora of doubts and conspiracy theories.

International news reports were replete with scary death tolls from Covid-19 in America, Asia, Europe and sundry places. The people made mental comparisons of what transpired in those places and the reality in their own backyard and some of them concluded, albeit erroneously, that the disease was either fake or yet to actually get to the country.

According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), since the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Borno State, in April, 2020, , the number of lab confirmed cases is 1,337, the number of cases on admission is 99, the number of discharged cases is 1,200, while the number of deaths from Covid-19 within that time was 38.

Misinformation and Conspiracies Still Drive Vaccine Hesitancy

Opinions sampled from respondents in Maiduguri, Jere and Konduga Local Government Areas of the state showed that the figures are minimal compared to other parts of the world with larger figures.
Over a decade before the advent of Covid-19, anti-west sentiment in parts of Northern Nigeria was quite pervasive. An attitude responsible for the proliferation of children crippled by wild polio virus because their parents, religious and opinion leaders thought polio vaccine could lead to sterility and depopulation.

A 2013 article titled, ‘Listening to the rumours: What the northern Nigeria polio vaccine boycott can tell us ten years on’, showed between July 2003 and August 2004, five states in Northern Nigeria – Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano, Niger and Zamfara, suspended the administration of the oral polio vaccine. 
The boycott proved a huge setback for polio eradication and polio incidence in Nigeria jumped from 202 in 2002 to 1143 in 2006.

Isaac Ghinai, a researcher on public health, epidemiology, global health and infectious diseases said there has been a particularly serious and well documented set of vaccine refusals in Nigeria due to misinformation, conspiracy theories buoyed by religion and ethnicity.

“One of the justifications given for the boycott was the belief that Oral Polio Vaccine spread HIV and caused sterility in Muslim girls. An understanding of the religious elements at play, which, in Northern Nigeria, are intrinsically interwoven with ethnic identity, is therefore key to understanding the power this accusation had,” he said. 

True to type, the same sentiment is still alive and responsible for the doubts and conspiracy theories trailing the existence of Covid-19 and the need to accept and receive vaccines manufactured to effectively prevent its spread.

‘Why We Won’t Take Covid-19 Vaccine’

A random sampling of opinions during interviews with respondents gave an insight to the havoc misinformation about Covid-19 vaccine is capable of wreaking, especially in societies that have been battling with insurgency. 

How the misinformation is generated and disseminated is quite opaque, but not unconnected with grapevine and conspiracy theories that are akin to the ones on polio over a decade ago.

“I will not receive the Covid-19 vaccine because I was told that whoever receives it will not live beyond 50 years on Earth”, Jidda Saleh, a 32-year-old farmer from Jere Local Government Area of Borno State told this researcher. (Note: This misinformation has been debunked by WHO and many fact-checkers)
Sadly,  many people like Malam Jidda in his Haddamari community of Jere Local Government Area believe this to be true. 
Because opinion leaders in this part of Nigeria wield enormous influence, their words are revered. If the misinformation is coming from them, the damage can only be imagined.

In Maiduguri, Ahmed Umar, a 28 years old student, pointed out, quite boldly: “I’ll not receive the vaccine because I saw qualified medical doctors on YouTube discrediting the vaccine. If white medical doctors could insist that the vaccine is a fraud, who am I to say it’s not?” 

Another respondent, Agnes Dauda, a primary school teacher said: “when Covid-19 was reported in Maiduguri in the early days, patients on admission at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital were branded as sufferers of the disease by the hospital management when in fact they were suffering from unrelated health challenges.”

In Konduga local government area, Abbas Grema Konduga, a 43 year-old farmer said: “we live in a very hot place; Covid-19 cannot survive here”. 
Like many others in his immediate community, Malam Abbas obviously believed the fallacy. This kind of misinformation is undoubtedly the cog in the wheel of achieving the desired vaccination necessary for preventing the spread of the disease.

Vaccination underway in phases

Thankfully, no amount of doubt, conspiracy theory or misinformation has been able to prevent relevant stakeholders from distributing the vaccine to people that are willing to get vaccinated in the state. 
Atilio Rivera, an INTERSOS doctor, has been carrying out Covid-19 awareness and vaccination activities in Borno State in three phases. The first one is intended for health workers and front-line workers, and the most-at-risk groups of the population – the elderly and people with specific diseases. 
As at 15th April, 2021, 75,000 doses have arrived in the state for the first phase. These doses have been divided into two parts respectively, 50% for the first and 50% for the second dose.  
The relative success recorded by government and partners like INTERSOS notwithstanding, misinformation has been a major setback for positive response to Covid-19 vaccination.

In Borno State, religious and opinion leaders can influence the decision of the masses to accept the vaccine. 
If they are targeted to change narratives or set desired agendas, the end result can lead to massive acceptance of the vaccine which will lead to the general well being of the people.

* 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.

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