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Nigeria gets the vaccine, but many people are skeptical

Students at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka at their exam venue with little or no adherence to covid-19 protocols. (Blessing Udeobasi/YJI)

Nsukka, Nigeria – Amid rising cases of coronavirus infections and deaths in Nigeria, federal authorities have started vaccinating top government officials and frontline health workers.

The first batch of the AstraZeneca covid-19 vaccine – nearly 4 million doses – arrived here from India in early March.

More than 16 million doses of the vaccine are expected in the coming months, according to UNICEF.

While the arrival of the vaccines marks a step towards eradicating the spread and transmission of the deadly virus, some Nigerians are skeptical of the vaccine. They hold mixed feelings about its efficacy amid a wave of misinformation surrounding the pandemic, including widespread claims that the virus is a hoax and only a ploy to attract donor funding and fuel corruption.

Nigerians have often had a checkered relationship with its leaders and a long-running sense of disillusion over mismanagement of funds, unemployment, rising poverty levels and a glaring absence of basic infrastructure like water, road, good schools and hospitals.

During the first wave of the pandemic, millions of Nigerians struggled because the nation lacks a robust social welfare system that caters to its large population, which is estimated to be over 200 million.

Mobs, angry that politicians were keeping covid-19 aid in storage rather than distributed to struggling families, raided government warehouses in recent months, looting staples like rice, according to several news accounts.

It is for these reasons and many more that Nigerians do not trust government officials, and so it is common to hear people say that the vaccine will not be distributed equitably among citizens, instead the government and politicians will find ways to vaccinate their family and friends before thinking of the public.

Conspiracy theories might also slow the acceptance of covid-19 vaccines. Some people are spreading unfounded claims that the vaccines are part of sinister plans hatched by world leaders to reduce the population of Africa.

This claim, which is not supported by any evidence, is gaining traction across the country and might further slow the vaccine rollout and acceptance.

If the government wants to effectively roll out vaccines, it needs to start with convincing people that covid-19 is not a hoax. Low infections and death rates, which defied earlier frightful projections by foreign media and experts, is part of the problem.

As of March 12, about 160,332 cases have been confirmed in Nigeria, of which 2,009 have died and 144,059 discharged. Only about 14,264 active cases are being managed now.

The problem with these figures is that low levels of testing (only 1.6 million have been tested as of March 12) in Nigeria belie the true situation of the pandemic. There are genuine speculations that some people might have contracted the virus but because testing is limited, many might not know they actually had the virus and may have recovered.

Some politicians and even governors have also fueled the belief that there is no covid-19 in Nigeria through their public statements denouncing any mention of the virus in their states or by refusing to wear face masks.

The result is poor public compliance with covid-19 safety measures such as maintaining physical distance and wearing face masks.

Students at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka gather without proper masking or social distancing. (Blessing Udeobasi/YJI)

Jane Edime, a student of University of Nigeria, Nsukka said she would rather remain vulnerable to the covid-19 virus than accept a dose of the vaccine because she thinks world leaders have an ulterior motive. She said the motive is to reduce Africa’s population.

But not everybody in Nigeria will refuse to take the vaccine. Some Nigerians have welcomed the arrival of the first batch of the vaccine with renewed optimism that we are on track to finally tackle the virus.

Emmanuel Nwugo, who studied at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, said if Nigerians accepted the foreign-made vaccines for polio, yellow fever, tuberculosis and other diseases, then it is not out of place to accept the covid-19 vaccine.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari and the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo are among the first high-profile individuals to take the vaccine. Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who has won the Nobel Laureate for Literature, is also among several other individuals, including state governors and federal ministers, who have been vaccinated.

Some health workers have also been vaccinated.

The National Primary Health Care Development Agency has created an online portal where Nigerians can register to be vaccinated near health facilities within their communities and neighborhoods.

By starting with popular figures like Buhari, Osinbajo and Soyinka, the government has taken the right step to build public trust and convince its citizens that the vaccine is safe and reliable.

The next problem the government needs to deal with is ensuring that there is fairness and impartiality in the nationwide distribution of vaccines. That way, regardless of how long it takes, every Nigerian will get vaccinated in due course.

Blessing Udeobasi is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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