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» » » » Why vaccine hesitancy is rife in Masvingo


Dr Ammadious Shamhu

By Tatenda Chitagu

The Sinopharm and Sinovac BioTech COVID 19 vaccines have joined the long list of products from China that are treated with disdain by Zimbabweans.

Dubbed Zhing Zhongs, most products from the East Asian giant, touted as the country’s ‘all-weather friend’, are shunned for being substandard and not durable.

Even though Health Minister Constantine Chiwenga, who is also the vice president, was the first one to get the Chinese COVID 19 jab, his public gesture has not been emulated by frontline workers in Masvingo.

Chiwenga’s principal, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who only got vaccinated weeks latter when a second batch that included another Chinese Sinovac Biotech vaccine arrived, at one time said those not inoculated will not board public transport.

“Nobody is forced to be vaccinated….but it will come a time when those who are not will not board ZUPCO buses,” he said.

Chiwenga also reiterated the president’s point this week in an interview with broadcaster Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa, saying the COVID 19 vaccination card could be soon used as a passport to public utilities if people continue shunning the vaccination program.

But the message from the country’s top citizens, it seems, is falling on deaf ears in the province.

Out of the initial 22 000 doses supplied to Masvingo province on 19 February, only 3 600 front liners were inoculated as of last week, according to statistics availed by the provincial COVID 19 taskforce.

Masvingo provincial medical director, Dr Ammadious Shamhu said there are around 6 600 health workers in the province, excluding other frontline government workers who are targeted for the initial inoculation program. This means not all frontline health workers have been inoculated as the figure of those who got the jabs includes other frontliners like journalists and others at high exposure to the pandemic.

Some of the few frontliners that got inoculated said they did so ‘out of fear’. This follows the taking over of the mass roll-out program by the army medical personnel, as well as threats from government.

Investigations by this publication reveal that among other reasons, suspicion and stigma are the top causes of the low uptake of the vaccines, with many developing a wait and see attitude.

“We do not know if there are side effects or not, or whether the vaccines are effective. You know everything Chinese is not trusted in Zimbabwe,” one nurse said in an interview, off the record due to retribution fears.

“Better the devil we now know (COVID 19), than the vaccine we do not. After all, COVID 19 has chances of recovery. What if you get lifelong side-effects from a vaccine you do not understand,” another frontliner from the security services confided to this publication.

Worserning the mistrust were remarks by former Masvingo provincial medical director, Robert Mudyiradima, now Chief Director responsible for Policy, Planning and Monitoring & Evaluation in the Ministry of Health and Child Care in Zimbabwe, who admitted that no tests were done on the Sinopharm vaccines in the country to establish its efficacy.

Mudyiradima made the admission when the country received its first batch of the 200 000 Sinopharm vaccines on 15 February at the Robert Mugabe international airport, some of which were donated to Zimbabwe.

“When we immunise, we will take the evidence that it works or not, it has not been tested yet so we cant say it works or not to the new South African variant,” Mudyiradima said in remarks that unsettled government.

Health and Child Care deputy minister John Mangwiro, in a firefighting measure, told Senate a week later that the Sinopharm vaccine from China does not need further clinical trials as they were already done internationally to check its effectiveness.

“Before it is administered on people, we have what we call the World Health Organisation which writes to confirm that yes, this vaccine does work, and for example, to see how it works, it can be administered on a sample of five or ten healthy young men. What we have now in the country is a vaccine that has been dealt with already,” Mangwiro said.

This did not help matters either.

“When there are conflicting signals from the top, it shows some discord, We are afraid we will be used a guinea pigs, especially when the vaccine was donated. Free things may be expensive in the long run,” another Masvingo frontliner said.

Itai Rusike, Executive Director, Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) said the vaccine hesitancy is due to a number of factors which include scepticism on government itself, mistrust of Chinese goods as well as social media misinformation.

“Scepticism of government, the Sinopharm vaccine and the general mistrust of Chinese goods and products has laid fertile ground for the vaccine hesitancy, anti-science opportunism and fear mongering that the country is currently  experiencing in its  Covid-19 national vaccination roll-out programme resulting in the general poor uptake of the Sinopharm vaccine.

“Social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, has been targeted both by those spreading disinformation, with organised campaigns building on previously existing fault lines in our society. Both social and traditional media operate on a business model that rewards alarmist "click bait". We need to limit the spread of harmful health misinformation and disinformation in Zimbabwe through strengthening citizens' resilience to mis/disinformation.  Empowering media partners to professionally share lifesaving information and debunk disinformation on Health,” Rusike said. 

Rusike said there is need to de-politicise the COVID 19 pandemic and increase awareness for improved vaccines uptake.

“Politicians have used both Covid-19 and the emergence of vaccines against the disease to score points and raise their profile. We need Covid-19 vaccine Champions representing various constituent groups such as Politicians,  Religious Leaders, Youth's Organizations,  Civil Society, Health Professionals, Persons with Disabilities etcetera to assist in convincing their members followers and supporters to embrace vaccination willingness if the country is to achieve the required herd immunity of vaccinating at least 60 percent of the population. Public trust and confidence will now have to be rebuilt in the vaccine itself and requires an urgent widespread communication strategy and plan,” he said.

Citizens Health Watch trustee Fungisai Dube said government needs to engage and consult more with the people than try to coerce them.

“It goes back to raising awareness among the ordinary citizens. So for me it’s lack of information. The campaign on the vaccine should be taken seriously and to the communities. It is not a matter of imposing it on people. Engage citizens, dialogue with them so that there is buy in this regard. Imposing a vaccine on a period of speculation make it really difficult for people  to accept the vaccine,” she said.

Called for a comment on why there is so much vaccine hesitancy in Masvingo, Mangwiro said the vaccination program is getting a by-in in other provinces and people in Masvingo need more awareness.

“In Harare and Victoria Falls, vaccination centers are overwhelmed. We need to make people aware, and that is also your duty as journalists. Otherwise people will die and you start blaming the government again. Let us be serious as Zimbabweans,” he said.

Mangwiro said his Ministry officials will come to Masvingo to assess the situation and engage the frontliners on the need for vaccination.

As of Friday, the country had recorded 36,778 cases, with  34,555 having recovered while 1,518 died.

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