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DRC: Local groups and government try to boost vaccination rates, fight misinformation (ITV & Ukingo)

More than 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, our understanding of the virus and of the COVID-19 vaccines has evolved. Yet despite the availability of several vaccines, many countries have low vaccination rates and significant vaccine hesitancy.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has the lowest rate of COVID-19 vaccination in the world. As of Nov. 17, 2021, the DRC has reported 57,803 cases of COVID-19 and 1,099 deaths since the start of the pandemic. But due to the low testing rates in Africa, it is thought that the true numbers are much higher.With less than 0.1% of the DRC’s 93 million residents fully vaccinated, this has led experts to investigate the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy.           

Misinformation, mistrust of the government, and mistrust of the West are three oft-cited reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Rodriguez Katsuva runs Congo Check, DRC’s first fact-checking service. He says 30% of the articles and social media messages judged by his team as containing false information were directly related to COVID-19.

For example, one myth spread through WhatsApp maintains that, if someone finds hair in their bible, they can add water to it, and as a result, are vaccinated. This, of course, creates resistance to receiving the actual vaccine.

Mr. Katsuva also suggests that the low rate of education in DRC contributes to the spread of misinformation.

A video circulated via WhatsApp in February 2021 suggested that children were being vaccinated without their parents’ consent. This only increased mistrust and misinformation, and, after watching the video, parents came to the school to take their children home in the middle of the day. With the degree of mistrust in government and schools and the spread of misinformation, it is not easy to boost rates of vaccination.

The United Nations and its partners created COVAX to procure and supply vaccines globally—particularly for low-income nations—in order to boost vaccination rates. COVAX delivered vaccines to DRC and, although there were sufficient doses to vaccinate many people in the program rollout, the government has been struggling to distribute them. Many believe that Congolese people are mistrustful of vaccines developed in the West due to difficult experiences in the past.

Professor Phil Clark is an academic with the School of Oriental and African Studies. He says, “Mistrust is twofold—there’s mistrust of the Congolese state, but there is also mistrust of the West, where most of the vaccines come from.… There’s a lot of anger towards the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission, western NGOs, and foreign mining interests.”

The Amani Institute, a local, youth-led organization, has started programs to educate people who are hesitant about the vaccine. Founder Joseph Tsongo says: “We’re not really here to tell people to take the vaccine. That’s not our mission, but we can show people what’s going on, what’s being said, what’s right and what’s wrong.”

A vaccination campaign is also being launched in Goma, in North Kivu, DRC. The campaign calls on residents to take ownership of the process of fighting the COVID-19 virus. The governor called on the entire region to get vaccinated, as Goma is one of the worst regions in DRC for the spread of COVID-19.

A local man named Kahanya Kimuha visited the Goma vaccine centre after hearing the announcement and received the vaccine to, he says, “protect myself and others.” He also urged people to become sufficiently informed and warned, “Do not give in to false information.”

Brigadier General Sylvain Ekenge, a spokesperson for the military, also received the vaccine, saying he “wanted to lead by example.”

To combat vaccine misinformation, awareness is key not only for the Congo, but for the wider world.

This story is adapted from an article written by Wedaeli Chibelushi for ITV, called “Democratic Republic of Congo: Inside the country with the lowest Covid vaccination rate in the world” and from an article written by John Tsongo for Ukingo, called “RDC-SANTÉ : Goma, les autorités lancent la campagne de vaccination au vaccin Pfizer…” To read the ITV story, go to: https://www.itv.com/news/2021-10-20/inside-the-country-with-the-lowest-covid-vaccination-rate-in-the-world [1] 

And to read the Ukingo story, go to: http://ukingo.net/rdc-sante-goma-les-autorites-lancent-la-campagne-de-vaccination-au-vaccin-pfizer/ [2]

Photo: A Congolese man gets his COVID-19 vaccine in Kinshasa, DRC. Credit: UNICEF, 2021.