Why Africa is (still) suspicious of the Covid-19 vaccine

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Since the onset of the pandemic began, almost a year ago, Africa has stood out in several ways, but like everywhere else, skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines has gained ground . Even if, for Africans, this mistrust sometimes goes way back in history. Today, between conspiracy theories, poor communication and lack of confidence in governments, vaccination campaigns are shaping up to be difficult.

Governments that are not doing enough

Fueled by rumors proliferating on social networks, a dynamic similar to that observed in Western countries is at work in Africa, and reluctance is stronger when it comes to Covid-19 than towards other vaccines , explain experts interviewed by AFP. “We are at a high level of skepticism,” says Ayoade Alakija, who heads the strategy of Convince in Africa, an initiative for the acceptance of anti-Covid vaccination. Among the factors, she cites the unpopularity of governments and disinformation. One theory that has found a wide audience is, for example, that vaccines were designed to halt African population growth.

Governments themselves can throw the poison of suspicion. Tanzanian President John Magufuli claimed at the end of January, despite global health warnings, that the injections against the Covid were “dangerous for [la] health ”. Most African countries are still making arrangements to start immunizing. Many have yet to receive a single dose, with wealthy states grabbing the stocks. These African countries are however in the grip of a new wave of contaminations. Much stronger than the first, it apparently remains without measure with that wiped in the United States or in Europe. This even reduces the sense of health emergency. Moise Shitu, 28, a truck driver in Lagos, the Nigerian capital, interviewed by Agence France-Presse, rejects the idea of ​​getting vaccinated. “This is a scam on the part of our government,” he said, “they say there is a coronavirus in Nigeria to make money”. The same refusal in Kano, a city in northern Nigeria, from Zainab Abdullahi, 41 years old. “We hear people who have been vaccinated in Western countries and talk about serious side effects, but they still want to vaccinate us,” she said.

Campaigns between disinformation and fake news

The picture is not uniform. Waiters interviewed at a café in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, said they were anxious to be vaccinated so as not to contract the virus. Mamadou Traoré, a vaccination advisor for Doctors Without Borders, assures us that resistance is growing. “People said to themselves that this is not a disease that affects black people,” he said, “it is up to governments to fight all this misinformation”.

Few reliable studies are available on attitudes towards the vaccine in Africa. Preliminary surveys suggest that many people are suspicious. The African Centers for Disease Control published in December the results of a survey carried out in 18 countries and showing that only a quarter of those questioned believed that the vaccines against the Covid were not dangerous. However, the study did not identify a massive front of refractories: 79% said they would accept a vaccine if it was proven to be safe.

Africa and vaccines, a long history

Richard Mihigo, Africa Vaccination Coordinator at the World Health Organization, points out that historically the degree of vaccine acceptance is high in Africa and sees it as a happy omen. But he concedes that the rumors have “spread like wildfire” online and are a “real problem”. An interview in which two French scientists suggested in 2020 that companies should test their vaccines first in Africa sparked an outcry and helped rekindle long-standing fears of Western exploitation of the continent. The controversy has caused “great damage”, regrets Richard Mihigo, “people said, ‘So you see? We can now say that Africans are guinea pigs ””.

Apart from access to the vaccine, fake news represents one of the major challenges to be overcome for the upcoming campaign in Senegal, according to Ousseynou Badiane, head of the vaccination program in this country. Much of the disinformation comes from France, he notes. The former colonial power is one of the countries most reluctant to vaccinate. The painful memory of the slave trade, as well as a past when governments had a heavy hand explain the hesitations, says Cheikh Ibrahima Niang, Senegalese professor of medical anthropology. Scandals such as the death in 1996 of 11 Nigerian children after treatment trials led by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer against meningitis have left their mark, he said. Governments must actively work to convince the recalcitrant, he emphasizes. Guinean President Alpha Condé preached the good word by being vaccinated in front of the cameras. But Ayoade Alakija, for the Convince initiative, warns that winning support is all the more difficult when the government’s confidence rating is low.

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