How misinformation spreads vaccine resistance in Nigeria
Someone once said “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on”. Well, whoever said that wasn’t wrong because in the case of COVID-19 misinformation in Nigeria, people can give you many reasons not to take the vaccine but cannot mention two pharmaceutical companies behind the vaccine breakthrough. The global pandemic has a devastating effect in the life of everyone from people in the first world countries to people in the least developed countries. Everyone was mandated to stay indoors by their respected government to curb the spread of the virus.
Amidst the pandemonium, scientists had raced to discover a vaccine that would combat the virus by restricting it from spreading to people and that would require vaccinating the entire world, that’s practically almost everyone on it. The news of the vaccine was welcomed with so much excitement around the world because the world government is now confident that global trade can resume and the world can open out again; slowly countries started relaxing the lockdown rules. Nigeria was no exception, she went on a series of lockdowns which was followed by some social issues that exposed the ineptitude of the government and as I could say altered a page from the social contract between the government of Nigeria and its civil society.
The misinformation of the virus started gaining traction in Nigeria when governments and popular figures started pedaling information of conspiracy about the origination of the virus. Through with the help of social media, it was easy to spread misinformation and fake news and attract more audience and attention from conspiracy lovers. In Nigeria, a senator referred to the virus as being linked to the 5G network and anti-Christ and the same assertion was supported and widely promoted on Twitter and Facebook. There were also speculations by the former President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, that the virus was not a serious virus and that it was overhyped and politicized. Misinformation like that got to the Nigerian social media and that continued to stir up panic about the virus even before the arrival of vaccines in Nigeria. The false assumption that hydroxychloroquine and salt water bath could provide a solution was also another concrete bullshit of an information that was widely spread by people, as indeed fake news spread like wildfire. We cannot completely blame negligence on the part of government institutions as to the spread of misinformation regarding the virus.
The religious leaders in Nigeria played a major role in disseminating false assumptions about the virus with a pastor referring to it as a microchip and sign of the devil to control the people. Nigeria is a religious country with a large Christian and Muslims population and a small fraction of other faiths. The 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 branding the virus as devil made and the vaccine as the sign of anti-Christ, most Nigerians have concluded that they will distance themselves from the vaccine and have nothing to do with the virus. Some pastors even went as far as preaching science to explain the attachment of the virus to the 5G network. Everyone wanted to sound smart, even our pastors.
The highest misinformation campaign against the virus and the vaccine was among the people. For instance, there was a series of shared posts on WhatsApp labelling the virus as scam and the vaccine as magnetic. I also spoke with someone who felt people were injected with expired vaccines and some die some days after vaccination. The people also felt that the government was politicking with public health and that continued to spread a fishy feeling about compliance with the government directive on vaccination. Social media has been one of the greatest means to spread misinformation and displeasure over an issue and we saw an explosion of fake tweets, Facebook posts and people trying to gain views and attention at the expense of national health.
In my view, the rate of anti-vax among Nigerians is becoming very disheartening. The primary health centre which happens to be a vaccine point close to my vicinity is experiencing a low turn up for vaccination because of misinformation. This is indeed a war between the vaccinated and the anti-vaxxed; we have seen the virus mutate over the years and it’s time to start working to put the virus behind us and we cannot do that without taking the vaccine. Health care workers should support the effort at debunking fake news and disinformation about vaccines and also the virus. The government should establish an ad hoc agency under the Ministry of Information to focus on combating misinformation among the population.
Until we challenge the growing misinformation and disinformation in Nigeria, COVID-19 virus may continue to linger in our society. Public health will continue to be a challenge if we do not fight misinformation. The only way possible will be a combined effort of every Nigerian to debunk and encourage people to do the needy so we can put the pandemic behind us and move on with our lives. Until everyone is vaccinated, the threat of the pandemic will continue to be a challenge to our daily lives.
Nwuko is a freelance writer in Lagos.
He can be reached via 08164407836