On February 23 this year, Ghana became the first country outside India to receive COVID-19 vaccine doses shipped via the COVAX Facility, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In the coming days, more of such is expected in the country. The country plans to vaccinate some 20 million persons against COVID-19 from the first week of March, according to Kwame Amponsa-Akyianu, Programme Manager for the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI). Great moves by the Government and its development partners. But, wait a minute. Would my grandmother take the vaccine?
Based on theories, people like grandma are supposed to be more interested in the vaccine due to their perceived susceptibility and severity. However, she tells me she has fears and doubts about the vaccine. Since the virus emerged, she has been bombarded with negative information (possibly, a lot of fake news) about the virus and the vaccine. Initially, she was told there is no such virus and that people with various conditions were simply being diagnosed as COVID-19, so the government can attract donor funds.
Subsequently, she was told COVID-19 actually existed, but it was a creation of some people to wipe off the black race. She was also told that the surgical masks have been infected with the virus and so advised us against using those masks. Then when plans to produce a vaccine were underway, she received information that some people had died after participating in the vaccine trial.
This was at a time the vaccine trials had not even begun in Europe. She has even been told of a grand conspiracy to use the vaccine to put a microchip in our bodies in fulfilment of the Christian belief of 666 mark of the beast. Now, she hears the vaccine is coming to her doorstep and she says, ‘‘oh my God’’.
It is pretty obvious that there are many like my grandmother who will not be receptive of the COVID-19 vaccine. Monitoring media reports and vox pops, I get the feeling that some are very doubtful of this whole vaccination campaign, and they may be justified given that myths around the pandemic have not been adequately dispelled. Yet, at this point, it is crucial that we get our people vaccinated. We cannot do this without addressing their fears and perceptions. We cannot do this without engaging them.
We cannot risk putting our vaccinators in danger of being attacked. Having the vaccine is one thing. Getting people to accept the vaccine is another. Our communication efforts would certainly need to go beyond indicating the benefits of the vaccine to addressing the fears and misconceptions of the Ghanaian populace.
In doing this, we need to use a participatory approach and also consciously employ a two-step flow model. We can continue to design and disseminate mass media messages, but these messages can best target some of our people, especially the literate who consume and have high trust in the mass media.
We need to get down to our regional and district levels and gather key stakeholders to collectively agree on the common misconceptions of the virus and the vaccine in their localities. Together, they can agree on a strategy to engage their people and pave the way for the vaccination exercise. We need to make use of our religious and opinion leaders and chiefs.
We need to make use of our associations and community groupings. Their personal interaction with the people may have a stronger effect than the mass media, directly. We also need to utilize same platforms that are used to spread misinformation, e.g., WhatsApp. In a similar fashion, we can get people to record videos to address the misconceptions and emphasize the key messages.
It may not also be bad for us to start with the early adopters. As Everett Rogers (1962) observed in his Diffusion of Innovation theory, in introducing an innovation, there are mostly early adopters, late adopters or laggards, among others. Clearly, there are people who are waiting to see how the vaccination would start and how those vaccinated would react.
It may be a good idea to phase our vaccination to ensure that those in more need and those very willing can start. Then, gradually, the rest of the population would come along, hopefully, by the time we do a general vaccination.
Government has announced plans to start with health workers and other identified groups. They may consider, also, starting with some influential people at the national and local levels to whip up interest in the vaccination.
Myself, I do not know whether I am an early adopter or a laggard. Which one are you? Ha, ha…!
Columnist: Mohammed Nurudeen Salifu