Misinformation and religious beliefs are holding back COVID vaccination rates in Africa

A wave of misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating on social media underpins COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Africa, where only 11% of people have received the vaccine.

Religious beliefs, distrust of government and the West, and a casual attitude to the scale of the pandemic have also contributed to general hesitation in parts of Africa.

A May 2021 Geopoll survey conducted in six African countries identified religious beliefs as the main drivers of hesitation. Some 90% of respondents in Niger and Liberia said prayer was more effective than the COVID-19 vaccine.

Africans have been described as “notoriously religious”, which could explain why much misinformation about vaccination has found its way into pulpits across the continent.

The tenacious hold of religion on the general populace is well illustrated in the case of Nigeria, where religious leaders have been complicit in spreading misinformation that inevitably sows the spirit of hesitation among their deferential followers.

“Nigeria is a religious country with a large Christian and Muslim population and a small fraction of other faiths,” writes Nigerian journalist Obinna Nwuko. “Religious institutions are one of the best ways to inform a large congregation of people because of the loyalty attached to the church. When some religious leaders started referring to the virus as made by the devil and the vaccine as the sign of the antichrist, most Nigerians concluded that they would distance themselves from the vaccine and had nothing to do with the virus.

A distrust of vaccines developed in Western countries has been prevalent in Africa for ages. In a 2021 study by the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 43% of respondents believed that Africans were being used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials. A 2021 survey in Addis Ababa highlighted hesitancy over the belief that the COVID vaccine was a biological weapon of developed countries to control population growth. Other respondents did not believe COVID-19 exists and they showed a higher degree of reluctance to go for the shot.

While social media can be a great tool for self-education, which could even help with vaccine decision-making, it is also a rich repository of misinformation, including “anti-vaxx” messages, incomplete information and inconsistent and complicated scientific information that may be difficult to understand. The Africa CDC study found that people with high levels of hesitation were more likely to use social media and be exposed to misinformation.

Rumors are circulating spectacularly, quickly and widely, especially on social media. Even ridiculous comments can find an audience due to the unfettered freedom of social media platforms.

“Healthcare workers are immune even without vaccines,” someone erroneously said on a WhatsApp bulletin. In yet another case, a cynical commenter mocked a South African news article posted on Facebook: “If it works then why ship it to Africa instead of giving it to every American first ???”

According to the definition of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization of the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccine hesitancy is a “delay in accepting or refusing vaccination despite the availability of vaccination”. Vaccination reluctance in Africa, which is said to be widespread even among health workers, is mainly driven by concerns about safety, side effects and efficacy.

Africa suffers from low COVID-19 vaccine uptake, lagging other regions by significant margins, despite a recent surge in increased vaccine availability. In January, 96 million doses were shipped to the mainland, more than double the shipments made in mid-2021.

And yet, only 11% of the continent’s population had been vaccinated by the start of February 2022, notes the World Health Organization (WHO). As it stands, Africa would need to increase its COVID-19 vaccinations sixfold to reach the 70% target set for mid-2022.

Every week, an average of 6 million people receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Africa. To reach the 70% target, the number must increase to 36 million. With the increase in vaccine deliveries on the continent, attention is now shifting to the need for African countries to accelerate vaccine deployment accordingly.

“Africa now has access to the vaccines it has been asking for for far too long. A reliable pipeline must go hand in hand with operational funding to move doses from depots to people’s arms,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

Other parts of the world have also had to deal with degrees of localized hesitancy over the COVID-19 vaccine. In Bolivia, for example, only about 45% of the eligible population is fully immunized, a phenomenon contrary to South America’s position as the most immunized region in the world. Several factors have been blamed for Bolivia’s lag, including sustained torrents of toxic campaigns by anti-vaxxers – including negative messaging from some churches – widespread distrust of the healthcare system and a preference for medicine traditional.

Fortunately, misperceptions and vaccine hesitancy in Africa have proven to be non-static. The GeoPoll survey recorded a decrease in hesitation in some of the sampled countries between November 2020 and April 2021. August 2020, before the vaccines were approved, to just 17% in April 2021 when the first batch of vaccines was delivered.

Other reasons cited for slow immunization rates in Africa include poor health infrastructure, limited funding for training and deployment of medical personnel, and difficulties in storing vaccines.

Image: African woman receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Shutterstock/i_am_zews


Ruth R. Culp