Low vaccination rates are of mounting concern amid a new wave of COVID-19 infections in Africa, where nearly 227,000 deaths have been reported, according to the Africa CDC’s COVID-19 dashboard. Only 20 African countries had vaccinated at least 10% of their populations as of mid-December, according to the United Nations.
Vaccine access is a major stumbling block.
Vaccines have been slow to arrive from wealthier countries; when they do, there may not be sufficient infrastructure to support timely distribution. On December 22, Nigeria’s government destroyed more than 1 million doses of donated AstraZeneca vaccine that authorities said could not be used before the expiration date.
Meanwhile, the African Union and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pushing efforts to develop vaccine manufacturing on the continent.
But, “even in countries where vaccines are being rolled out, there might be administrative and other obstacles that prevent refugees from being vaccinated,” said Aikaterini Kitidi, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee Agency, or UNHCR.
Some countries “require identity documents, which refugees often do not have,” she added. “Others have set up online [registration] systems that can deter or prevent people without access to the internet or who are not computer literate.”
Another challenge is misinformation.
It’s “heavily impacting the vaccination process and hindering people from coming,” said Dr. Martin Kalibuze, who directs the vaccination program in Uvira refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu province. “There are a lot of rumors, like ‘people are going to die from vaccination, women are going to turn infertile.'”
Sifa Akimana, a 28-year-old Burundian refugee living in the DRC’s Kavimvira transit center with her two babies, told VOA’s Central Africa service she was opposed to getting inoculated because “I hear from people that if you’re vaccinated, it’s very dangerous. It’s a way to control people’s movements with their detective machines.”
Kalibuze said any vaccination drive first needs a strong awareness campaign to smooth the way.
There’s at least one more impediment to COVID vaccination: competing priorities.
Across Africa and elsewhere, especially in zones with displaced people, “ministries of health have so many different crises that they have to tackle that COVID isn’t always on the top of their list,” said Jason Straziuso, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
For instance, he said, they might decide it’s wiser to invest in more mosquito nets to protect against malaria, a historically deadly disease that the WHO estimates killed 627,000 people in 2020 alone, mostly young African children.
The ICRC doesn’t distribute vaccines on its own but instead partners with health ministries and national Red Cross Societies, Straziuso said, noting it depends on those relationships “to move into contested areas and to carry out vaccination campaigns.”
Straziuso said the organization hopes to “do a lot more in 2022” to aid vulnerable people, including refugees and the displaced. “There’s just millions of people who don’t have access to these vaccines,” he said. “So, it’s a slow and long process.”