Emmanuel Ainebyoona sat at his desk in the basement of the ministry of health headquarters, looking at his computer. Another outrageous lie about COVID-19 vaccines was making rounds on social media.
Ainebyoona, a senior public relations officer at the ministry, immediately felt a jolt of anxiety. The government had just received 864,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the United Nation’s COVAX facility. It would be a challenge to encourage people to take a jab if they didn’t stop such misinformation.
So, Ainebyoona reached for his diary and scribbled something down. He would meet with his communications team and the other technical staff at the ministry the following week to draw up a plan to counter the false information.
“We came up with a communication strategy, which was really about debunking all this misinformation and relaying vaccine facts to the population,” Ainebyoona said.
“We had and still have colleagues who monitor all social media for false information about the available vaccines and thereafter our technical people arrest the situation with accurate messages,” he continued. “We insist on fact checking.”
The ministry also partnered with local journalists to spread the gospel about the good vaccines would bring.
They offered facts and explained how vaccines are made to allay fears that the immunizers injected a live virus to provoke immune responses.
But their messages never really seemed to sink in.
Myths spread on social media
Myths like vaccines are the white man’s way of trying to control the population and people who took it would die in two years were still spreading like wildfire on social media platforms WhatsApp and Facebook.
It didn’t help that some politicians joined the chorus, spreading illogical claims that Africans were gullible to trust the white man to come up with a vaccine for the coronavirus, which hadn’t been around for a year, when he had failed to find a vaccine for the HIV virus that had been killing people for decades.
The misinformation was steadily inducing vaccine hesitancy among the population. President Yoweri Museveni had to compel teachers and other civil servants to take a jab before they returned to their jobs.
But as the pandemic swept Africa and more people began to contract the virus and die, the population’s outlook towards the vaccines started to change. It was less about “the vaccines are flawed” and more about “when do we get a jab?”
“There was a shift in people’s perspectives about what vaccines could do to stop the coronavirus,” said Dr. Alfred Driwale, manager for the Uganda National Expanded Program on Immunization. “And, gradually, the misinformation about the available vaccines started to diminish.”
“More people now are willing to take a jab,” Driwale said. “They are demanding a vaccine because they see it as an opportunity to protect them and their families against the virus.”
This became vividly evident in early July, when the ministry of health commenced a second vaccination exercise. The ministry had secured 175,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, courtesy of the French government, and prioritized vaccination of teachers, health workers, the elderly and persons in uniform who had taken their first jab earlier and were due for a second dose.
Demand exceeds supply
But more persons outside these categories thronged health centers, seeking a jab. Immunization officers had to ask them to leave.
“We received more people than the vaccine doses [the ministry had delivered to us],” said Irene Nabukose, senior nursing officer at Kiswa Health Centre in Kampala. “The ministry had given us 100 doses and syringes. But there were more people.”
“We were focusing on persons who were due for their second dose,” said Nabukose. “So we asked the others to leave.”
It was a similar situation at other health centres in Kampala. Persons who were not 55 years and above or nursing underlying conditions were sent home without taking a jab.
“More people are seeking a vaccine because they are seeing their loved ones or people they know die,” said Nabukose. “It is a big factor for the behavior change you are seeing.”
“Before, people were thinking COVID-19 is a disease for the West. Not many Africans had died. So there was that complacency,” she continued.
But that has changed today, with cases soaring and more Ugandans — and Africans — dying of the viral infection.
The ministry of health says 2,203 Ugandans have succumbed to the coronavirus and 88,674 contracted it in this third wave. Though 63,140 have recovered, over 1,000 are critically ill in health centres.
The predicament is not helped by an ailing health care system, which is dogged with insufficient COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics and oxygen shortages.
Patients also have to pay a premium to access any form of health care. For instance, one has to pay UGX1m (US$281) for every night they spend in an intensive care unit. Not many can afford this.
Vaccine viewed as silver bullet
Because of this, people now see a vaccine as a silver bullet that will protect them against the virus, Nabukose said.
And the question now is whether government, or development partners, can procure enough vaccines for everyone who needs inoculation.
The ministry of health says it wants to vaccinate close to 22 million people, out of the country’s 41 million. The 22 million should help the rest of the population develop herd immunity.
But the country has only procured 1,139, 200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine — the 864,000 it received from the COVAX facility, the 175,200doses it got from the French government plus 100,000 doses donated by India.
These have been used to inoculate just over one million Ugandans [1,079,943] people. Less than 0.1% of the population have received both the first and second doses and are fully vaccinated.
President Museveni this month criticized Western countries for vaccine hoarding, saying it’s the reason the East African country has not been able to procure more vaccines.
There is lingering fear that the country might not hit its target of vaccinating 22 million people or 50 percent of its population.
But Ainebyoona called for calm and said they would vaccinate more Ugandans.
“The ministry is working hard to procure more vaccines. We shall have more vaccines by August. For now, we are prioritizing key categories, including military officers, teachers, medical personnel and the elderly and persons with pre-existing conditions,” said Ainebyoona. “The priority is that these key populations get two doses then we can move to the rest of the population.”
Just last week, the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the MasterCard Foundation signed an agreement to facilitate distribution of COVID-19 vaccines on the continent.
Under the agreement, at least 50 million Africans will get inoculated against the coronavirus, which should give more people hope.
But in stark contrast to earlier in the year, when Ugandans literally had to be compelled to get vaccinated, Ugandans now find they can’t stay calm until they take a jab.