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Post Inoculation Infections Reinforce COVID Vaccine Skepticism in Africa

July 15, 2021
topic:Health and Sanitation
tags:#Zimbabwe, #China, #COVID-19, #COVID vaccine
located:Zimbabwe, China
by:Cyril Zenda
On 26 June, Zimbabweans woke up to the shocking news that Dr. Bilal Shah, an affable medical practitioner who, for years, became a regular on a morning television programme, had succumbed to COVID-19. The next day, Douglas Chikobvu, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Professional Nurses Union, announced that he, together with his daughter, were in self-isolation after contracting the virus. A few days later, the death of another prominent medical doctor was announced.

That these people are frontline workers who were fully vaccinated and yet still fell victim to the pandemic is making the task of convincing ordinary citizens to get inoculated a tough one in this African country where even some health workers, who are tasked with administering COVID-19 jabs, are themselves still refusing to be vaccinated

“Yes, I have been fully vaccinated, but I still contracted it,” Douglas Chikobvu told FairPlanet in an interview.

Misgivings About Vaccines Abound

When Zimbabwe became one of the first countries on the African continent to take delivery of a consignment of the Chinese-made Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, there was excitement and hope among those that had personally experienced the second wave of coronavirus. 

But many Zimbabweans laughed the initiative away, with 49 percent of them expressing doubt that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, which appears to be failing in everything else, could actually deliver credible vaccines to them. As a result, most of them have continued to ignore pleas to get vaccinated, even after President Mnangagwa and other senior government officials have tried to squelch these misgivings by publicly taking the jabs. 

Now, as fully vaccinated people contract the virus, those already skeptical - both of vaccines in general and more specifically of the Chinese varieties of the vaccine that Beijing has been doling out across Africa - are feeling vindicated. 

The fact that health experts have always cautioned that these vaccines only provide a certain degree of protection for those inoculated has not improved confidence. 

Causes of vaccine hesitancy in Africa include fear, religious beliefs, lack of vaccine confidence and a general lack of knowledge, among others.

Questions Raised regarding Chinese Vaccines

Until now, China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ appeared to be a runaway success, with it’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines - most of them donations - having inoculated about a billion people mostly in Africa.

However, as those who have taken doses of Chinese vaccines, whose efficacy has always been a subject of debate, are seen to be increasingly catching the coronavirus, the vaccination rollout in Africa, where skepticism has always been the biggest obstacle, is being threatened.

When compared to other vaccinations, the relatively cheap Chinese vaccines are considered to be less effective.

Mandatory vaccination?

Zimbabwe’s vaccination programme, which targets about 60 percent of the country’s 15 million people, is supposed to be voluntary, and only about 544,000 people have been fully vaccinated as of 30 June - after nearly five months of continuous vaccination that started on 18 February; this caused the government to seek to force it on some population groups. 

On 29 June, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa revealed that many frontline workers - about 20 percent - are resisting vaccination and that a Cabinet decision had been made to give them an ultimatum to get inoculated by mid-July. Those who fail to do so could face penalties such as loss of insurance cover.

President Mnangagwa on 30 June repeated his previous threat that in the future, vaccination would be made a condition for accessing government and other public services, including simple bus rides.

So serious is the resistance in Zimbabwe that while the rest of the continent is experiencing critical shortages of the doses, the southern African nation, which is a darling of Beijing, has enjoyed an oversupply, which it has since opened up to citizens of other countries who are able to come and get the jabs for a fee.

Poor Communication Blamed

Robert Chiduku, president of the Zimbabwe Professional Nurses’ Union, attributed the vaccination apathy to a number of factors, but mainly to lack of knowledge, which he blamed on the government's poor communication strategies.

“Nurses, as frontline workers, are delaying or hesitating to vaccinate,” Chiduku said in a statement to FairPlanet. “Before the government rushes to blame them, the question of why they are hesitating to vaccinate must be addressed. Vaccine hesitancy is refusal or delaying to use vaccination services despite their availability. Vaccine hesitancy is not only a Zimbabwean phenomenon, but a fast rising global phenomenon.”

Causes of Hesitancy must be addressed 

Research findings by some academics in South Africa and Zimbabwe have highlighted the urgent need to address entrenched fears and hesitancy ahead of vaccination campaigns. The researchers said that for COVID-19 vaccination in South Africa and Zimbabwe to be successful, about 65 to 80 percent of each country’s population has to be vaccinated so that herd immunity is achieved. 

“The threat of vaccine hesitancy cannot be ignored,” the academics said in a report. “The factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy in the two countries are multifaceted and thus require equally complex strategies to be addressed. We note that community vaccine hesitancy should be understood and respected. The strategies to overcome it must be guided by the provision of sufficient information using the correct message delivery approaches to the community to allay any concerns they may have regarding the vaccines.” 

“The public needs to be aware of all issues concerning COVID-19 vaccines to have the confidence that they are safe,” they concluded.

Image: Lucio Patone

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe China
Embed from Getty Images
Widespread skepticism around the vaccine continued even after President Mnangagwa and other gov't officials got inoculated publicly.
© Tafadzwa Ufumeli
Embed from Getty Images
Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe Guo Shaochun speaks to the media as Zimbabwe's vice president, Constantino Chiwenga, looks on upon the arrival of a Sinopharm vaccine shipment at Harare International Airport on 15 February.
© Tafadzwa Ufumeli
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