News in depth: Vaccine hesitancy negatively affects Covid-19 jab uptake in Zimbabwe
Thirty-year-old Tadiwa Zinyama has been influenced by misconceptions and myths about the origins of Covid-19 and is refusing to be vaccinated.
One of these dangerous myths that the “coronavirus is biological warfare deliberately started by rich people such as billionaire Bill Gates to reduce the world population” has led her to believe that Covid-19 is not “real”.
Zinyama, a single mother of one, who requested her name be changed for “fear of reprisal” says, “I feel like we are being forced to take the Covid-19 vaccine.”
Speaking to The Standard at her home village of Chihota which is about 112km from Harare she says, “I do not believe Covid-19 is as deadly as it has been portrayed to be.
“I think it is the greatest scam that has been played on humanity.”
Zinyama’s views based on misinformation and conspiracy theories are shared by many young Zimbabweans and this is hampering the government’s goal of containing the virus.
To date, the southern African country has vaccinated only 3.5 million people falling far short of its vaccination target of 10 million people out of its World Bank estimated population of 16 million people.
Experts told The Standard that vaccine hesitancy is a result of a combination of factors including mistrust in government and inadequate information on the vaccines and how they work.
Myths, misinformation and disinformation on social media and traditional and religious beliefs that are anti-vaccines have also added to the problem.
Zimbabwe recorded its first death in March 2020 when media personality, Zororo Makamba, who was the second person to test positive for Covid-19, succumbed to the respiratory disease in Harare.
To date, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of more than 5 000 people while infecting more than 240 000 people, according to the Health Ministry.
In February last year, Zimbabwe rolled out its Covid-19 vaccination programme starting with health workers followed by the elderly after getting the first of the 200,000 Sinopharm vaccines donated by China.
There was slow uptake of the vaccine when rolled out to people aged 18 years and above with the elderly being the majority of people seen queuing for the jabs
Some of the vaccines that Zimbabwe is using include the Russian-made Spunitk V and the Chinese-made Sinovac.
The Johnson &Johnson Covid-19 vaccine from the United States has been approved, but the government has not rolled it out, saying it is too expensive.
Vaccine hesitancy is a major factor.
Despite not reaching its vaccination target the government made Covid-19 booster doses available as early as December last year.
In late 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for a moratorium on booster shots until the end of 2021 for healthy adults since there is vaccine inequality, particularly in the global south.
“There is no problem giving out booster shots before herd immunity is achieved, especially giving it to those who are vulnerable to Covid-19 such as health workers, the elderly and people with comorbidities.” says Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary Norman Matara.
“Currently, we do not know if herd immunity will ever be achieved since the vaccines are not offering 100 percent protection from infection.”
He said Covid-19 may become an endemic disease, hence they cannot wait for herd immunity before rolling out booster shots.
But Itai Rusike, an executive director at Community Working Group on Health, a network of civic and community-based organisations that aim to collectively enhance community participation in health in Zimbabwe, believes that the government should have put more effort into addressing vaccine hesitancy before rolling out booster shots.
“There was a need to address the issue of vaccine equity especially for the hard to reach communities and increase the number of people fully vaccinated before even introducing the additional third jab that is still struggling to find any takers because of the lack of credible information,” Rusike said.
As of early April this year, less than half a million people had taken up their booster doses.
In a bid to increase the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccines, the government in September 2021, extended the vaccination programme to those aged from 14 to 17 years.
This year the government intensified vaccination for this age group as health workers began administering shots in schools.
The government in an attempt to increase vaccine uptake made vaccination mandatory for its workers.
It also gave incentives to only vaccinated people by providing seating in food outlets and beerhalls.
But that has not helped achieve its vaccination target.
“I think vaccine hesitancy affects all age groups equally,” Matara said.
“Most people were indirectly forced to get vaccinated in order for them to access certain services like school, work, and travel among others.”
Some young people mistrust the Chinese vaccines and they have been waiting for United States-made vaccines such as the Johnson & Johnson Matara said adding that there were myths and misconceptions that were circulating on social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
For instance, there have been messages falsely claiming that Africans are being used as guinea pigs to test the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.
The fact is that Covid-19 vaccines have been tested in trials globally, including in western nations and in both South and North America.
Also, some religious groups have vowed not to take the jabs.
Apostolic sects with their millions of followers in Zimbabwe have for years not participated in vaccination programmes.
Another problem affecting vaccine uptake, especially in the rural areas is that people have to walk long distances to get the jabs, and others do not have adequate information about Covid-19 vaccines.
Zinyama has refused the vaccine saying she only trusts local herbal remedies.
“The natural home remedies did wonders to me when I had terrible flu which I suspected to be Covid-19 in April last year,” said Zinyama.
She was in Harare at the time and had gone out the previous weekend breaking Covid-19 rules resulting in her friend testing positive.
Some of these home remedies such as steaming, drinking boiled lemons and Zumbani tea have been used for generations to treat all flu and fever-related illnesses.
Zumbani, a woody erect shrub that grows naturally in Zimbabwe and other African countries is known scientifically as Lippia javanica.
At the peak of Covid-19, there was a spike in the number of traders packaging Zumbani tea leaves.
Health minister Constantino Chiwenga encouraged medical facilities to undertake a scientific study to ascertain the efficacy of traditional medicine and herbs to combat Covid-19.
To date, no medical facilities have proven that these traditional medicine work in treating Covid-19.
Africa University, located in the eastern part of Zimbabwe, announced in 2021 that it was in the process of developing cough drops made from the Zumbani plant though the move has not yielded any meaningful results.
John Kurerwa (25), said he was not convinced that it was worthwhile to take the Covid-19 vaccines.
“I am yet to hear any helpful information on the importance of these vaccines and how they work in limiting my chances of contracting the virus,” Kurerwa said.
Rusike said the government of Zimbabwe should be commended for the progress it has made in the procurement of vaccines including the introduction of the booster shots but there is a need for dissemination of new and encouraging messaging into the communities targeting the youths in order to create demand for vaccines.
“Vaccine hesitancy is because of the information gap and lack of sustained Covid-19 literacy,” he said.
“Zimbabwe has been experiencing a rise of misinformation, disinformation, science denialism, anti-vaxxer sentiments and vaccine hesitancy resulting in low uptake, especially among the youths thereby presenting a worrying picture for the country’s efforts to achieve the required herd immunity of vaccinating at least 60 percent of the population.”
Rusike said tackling disinformation and misinformation will require a multilingual public education campaign with respectful discussion, engagement and communication that cannot be reduced to government messaging.
This publication sent repeated requests to the Health ministry for comment but none was available at the time of going to print.
Matara said there were many conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccines, and the government hurriedly started the vaccine programme before people were informed.
This helped myths and misconceptions about the vaccines to take root and spread.
He said the vaccination program was announced and seemed spearheaded by government officials and politicians.
It was not driven by scientific experts and people already mistrust the government. This has resulted in poor uptake of the vaccine.
Matara said the government pushed vaccines from certain regions only and did not allow people to have access to a wide variety of vaccines including Western vaccines.
“There already existed a mistrust of Chinese products in Zimbabwe, and some people were skeptical about the Chinese vaccines, even though they were WHO approved,” he said adding that religious and cultural beliefs also played some part as some prominent religious leaders were firmly against the vaccines and hence influenced their followers.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Global Health Reporting Initiative: Vaccines and Immunisation in Africa.