Nigeria: Covid-19 – Two Years After Vaccination Flag-Off, Abuja Residents Still Hesitant

Despite reports of scepticism at the onset of vaccination, about 64 million people in Nigeria have so far taken the full doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

Despite Abuja, the Nigerian capital, being one the epicentres of coronavirus in the country, less than 20 per cent of its population are vaccinated.

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Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) became one of the nation’s epicentres of the coronavirus pandemic soon after the index case in the country was reported in February 2020.

To curtail the spread of the then-novel virus, President Muhammadu Buhari in March of the same year announced the first round of a two-week lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and the FCT.

The lockdown was later extended to other states and the period of lockdown was similarly extended, paralysing socio-economic and political activities nationwide.

To further stem the tide of the pandemic, the government joined the rest of the world to adopt a massive vaccination. Nigeria commenced the exercise on 5 March 2021, having received an initial delivery of four million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines from COVAX, an initiative aimed at ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines globally.

Although there were reports of scepticism at the onset of vaccination, so far, about 64 million eligible persons in Nigeria have completed their doses of the COVID-19 vaccines.

However, almost two years after the vaccination campaign launch, some residents of Abuja are still sceptical about taking the vaccines.

Vaccination in FCT

Data published by the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) shows that apart from the 67 million people who are fully vaccinated in Nigeria, about 12 million people, representing 11 per cent of the targeted population, are also partially vaccinated against the virus.

The FCT, with an estimated population of over six million, has fully vaccinated almost 800,000 persons (13 per cent) against the virus while about 200,000 persons are partially vaccinated.

Some of the millions of Abuja residents yet to be vaccinated spoke with PREMIUM TIMES about their reasons for not getting the free vaccines. While some denied the existence of the virus, others expressed doubts about the efficacy of the vaccines.

The FCT reported its first COVID-19 case on 21 March 2020, about a month after Nigeria recorded its index case in an Italian traveller. So far, over 29,000 confirmed cases have been reported in FCT while 249 people have died from the virus in the Nigerian capital.

According to data published by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the majority of the confirmed cases have been successfully treated and discharged while 12 persons were on admission.

Virus non-existent!!!

In the face of over 600 million COVID-19 cases recorded globally and about 266,000 cases in Nigeria, some Abuja residents still doubt the virus exists.

Ebeere Nwosu, a resident of Dape, told PREMIUM TIMES that she believes reported COVID-19 cases are lies made up by the government.

“Everyone is talking about COVID-19 and the need to take the vaccines, but why are people not dying as claimed by the government? I am yet to see anyone sick or die from the COVID-19 virus,” she said.

Ms Nwosu said she would only be convinced the virus exists in Nigeria when she witnesses a real case and not data released by governments.

A resident of Dei-Dei, who identified simply as Tayo, said he believes the virus exists but not in Nigeria. “I agree that the virus exists in China and other countries, but COVID-19 is not in the Africa region,” he said.

Similarly, Asmau Shehu, a resident of Dutse suburb of Abuja, said she believes the virus was made up by the Nigerian government to get aid from foreign organisations.

Ms Shehu said “the government is benefitting from these lies, that’s why they are spreading the narrative that COVID-19 exists. “Why would I take a vaccine for a virus that doesn’t exist?”

Mistrust, misinformation

Some of the residents who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES identified mistrust in the country’s governance system as a major reason for boycotting the COVID-19 vaccines.

A trader at the popular Wuse market, identified as Alhaji Yusuf, said he would not take the vaccines because he does not trust its content.

“I am not sure what it contains and you know this is Nigeria. Someone somewhere might have swapped the original vaccines to sell them and replace them with fake ones. I don’t want to die now,” he said.

A woman simply identified as Ebube residing in Kubwa said she would not take the vaccines because “I do not want to develop a magnetic skin.”

Ms Ebube said she heard that the vaccines got people cloned or magnetic after a period of time, one of the false claims about COVID-19 vaccines.

Victoria Ajayi, a resident of Gwarimpa, said she did not trust the effectiveness of the vaccine against the killer virus.

“Is the vaccine effective? Was it stored at the recommended temperature? Is there a probability of contracting the virus even after vaccination? This and many more unanswered questions are why I cannot take the vaccines,” she said.

She also raised concerns over the fast production of the COVID-19 vaccines, noting that vaccines usually take many years to produce.

Indeed, vaccines typically take at least a decade to develop, test and manufacture, according to scientists. In the US for example, vaccine development undergoes a specific set of steps that include exploratory phases, pre-clinical trials, new drug application, four phases of vaccine trials, and thorough vetting from the US Centres of Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

All of these processes combined could take multiple years, and even then, it might not be as effective as hoped.

However, the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were developed at breakneck speed in about 12 months to become the fastest ever in human history. This significant breakthrough raised concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Researchers, however, said the only difference between the COVID-19 vaccines and their predecessors is the use of the genetic material mRNA which is easy to make in a laboratory.

Religious belief, other factors

“We were warned that the COVID-19 vaccine is a means to put the 666 mark on our bodies so I can never take the vaccines,” Gloria, a resident of Karmo, said.

Ms Gloria said, “no matter what the consequences or threat of not accepting the vaccines are, I will not take it.”

Emmanuel Victor, a resident of Life Camp area of Abuja, said he was denied a job because of his refusal to accept jabs of the vaccines. Mr Victor said he refused to take the vaccine because his religious leader warned them against it.

“I passed every stage of the job interview but I forfeited the job because a major requirement was to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and I cannot do that,” he said.

Abdullahi Isa, a security guard at Wuse, said although he was aware of a nearby COVID-19 vaccination centre, he intentionally declined to take the vaccine.

“I know of some people around this area that took the vaccine and became too weak to even leave their houses,” he said.

The Acting Executive Secretary of FCT Primary Health Care Board, Isah Vatsa, said the FCT’s aim was to ensure over 80 per cent of the residents are fully vaccinated against the virus.

Mr Vatsa in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES acknowledged that although many residents were accepting the vaccines, some were still sceptical due to spread of false information.

He said people were getting vaccinated against COVID-19 everyday because they understand the benefits of vaccination for them and their loved ones.

“I can tell you that about 1.7 million doses of vaccines have been administered in the FCT and approximately 850,000 persons have been fully vaccinated. This is a very encouraging figure given the rate of misconception in the city,” he said.

Mr Vasta said the misconceptions were discouraging many persons from taking the vaccines.

“At the peak of the pandemic, most people including myself were praying the world develops vaccines and now the vaccine is available with us, yet some people are running away from it,” he said.

He said there was an ongoing community dialogue and sensitisation through different means and languages to spread accurate information about COVID-19 and its vaccines.

Vaccine hesitancy

Various health experts have said the misconceptions and mistrust about the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine hesitancy are majorly fuelled by previous experiences on vaccination in the country, coupled with inadequate enlightenment campaigns.

Vaccine hesitancy, a reluctance or refusal to be immunised, was named by the World Health Organisation as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.

A survey carried out in 2021 by a research firm, SBM Intel, showed that only 39.9 per cent of Nigerians were willing to take the vaccines. While 35.9 per cent of the respondents said they would not take the vaccine, 24.1 per cent were unsure of their position.

“Like other vaccines, there are mistrust issues associated with the COVID-19 vaccine. In interviews with some respondents who are opposed to the vaccine, we filtered a number of misconceptions about the vaccine. Some respondents held that it is a religious war to contaminate the children of God with evil substances,” the research firm said.

The survey indicated that some people believed the vaccine was a tool to depopulate Nigeria, while others expressed concern about the effectiveness ratio and the side effects it might have. Some other persons were not completely opposed to the vaccine but were more concerned with the thoughts of being used as Guinea pigs for drug trials.

The survey also found that nearly a fifth of Nigerians still did not believe COVID-19 is real.

The Executive Director of Nigeria’s immunisation agency, Faisal Shuaib, had earlier expressed concerns over vaccine hesitancy caused by misinformation which leads to doubt about the efficacy of the vaccine.

Mr Shuaib said all vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, are manufactured under strict compliance with WHO guidelines. “Therefore, COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any harmful substance, or microchip and do not alter human genetic information.”

He said the COVID-19 vaccines are effective and would trigger an immune response that will protect humans against the virus if encountered.

To address vaccine hesitancy amongst other factors threatening response to the pandemic, Mr Shuaib said the agency is working with religious and traditional leaders and other stakeholders to improve vaccine uptake.

He said state governors are also mobilising traditional and religious leaders to give out correct information about vaccination generally.

“So all of the misinformation and disinformation, you know, that are out there, we have traditional and religious leaders actually countering them.”

Halting new variants

As the world grapples with the emergence of new COVID-19 variants which have led to more cases and deaths in some countries, health experts have warned that the world must be fully vaccinated against the virus to halt further spread.

The latest variant XBB.1.5, a descendant of Omicron, is said to be the most transmissible strain of COVID-19 because of the mutations it contains, which allow it to adhere to cells and replicate easily.

The variant, which accounted for 44.1 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the United States in the past week, has so far spread to 28 countries, according to data from the WHO.

Although the new variant has not been detected in Nigeria, the NCDC said it is monitoring the trends in China, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, and other countries with a high volume of traffic to and from Nigeria.

The NCDC also said the most important action for Nigerians is to get vaccinated against COVID-19 virus as severe disease, admissions, and deaths disproportionately affect the unvaccinated and those with established risk factors.

(This report was produced with the support of the Centre for Democracy and Development).

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