In a country with a low number of cases, people are unsure why they need to be vaccinated
By Lucinda Rouse*
In a country that has seen just over 2,000 official cases of Covid and 85 deaths, it is easy to understand why Liberia has found it hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for a Covid vaccine.
It took almost four weeks from the shipment of 96,000 doses of the AstraZeneca jab – via the Covax vaccine sharing initiative – arriving in the capital Monrovia to the first shot going into an arm.
And at the official launch of the campaign the country’s president – former professional footballer George Weah – was conspicuously absent.
One of the reasons for the delayed launch is widespread suspicion surrounding the vaccine, exacerbated by reports of blood clots among AstraZeneca recipients in several European countries.
“Right after we received the vaccine the news came out about the clots,” Liberia’s health minister, Wilhelmina Jallah, told the Telegraph. “So we delayed to see the result of the investigation.”
In March the World Health Organization said that “the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks” and recommended “that vaccinations continue”. Two weeks later, the government gave the green light for vaccination to begin.
But even before concerns arose about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a survey conducted between October and January found hesitancy and mistrust surrounding Covid inoculation in Liberia was among the highest in the region, with just one in three respondents saying they would volunteer to be vaccinated.
The survey, published by pan-African research network Afrobarometer, attributes the high hesitancy to low confidence in the government, with 78 per cent of respondents in Liberia stating they didn’t trust the government to ensure the safety of the vaccine before offering it to citizens.
“I’m worried about Covid but the vaccine is not correct,” says Doris Gardour, as she wrings out clothes into a plastic laundry bowl outside her family home in downtown Monrovia.
“We’re hearing around town that poor people can die when they take it.”
“I’m afraid to take this one,” agrees her father, Samuel Gardour, a tailor, who says he knew of five people, including his sister-in-law, who died after taking part in an Ebola vaccine trial following the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic.
“I would love to first see our officials of government taking it, right up to the president. Then I will have the confidence to take it and if we die, we all die together!” he says.
Dr Jallah says she thinks the president “will come round” and eventually have the jab. “Because it’s an individual and voluntary thing I think we should give him his space and let him decide and come out for himself.”
But Mr Weah’s apparent reluctance to be vaccinated is likely to further fuel rumours circulating on social media.
“People are sending videos from America saying they want to decrease the world’s population through the vaccine,” says 36-year-old hairdresser Tracy Gray, standing in the doorway of her one-room salon in Monrovia.
“I have seen five videos. I will not vaccinate myself or my family.”
Conversely, Ms Gray had no concerns about a recent four-day polio vaccination campaign which reached around 85 per cent of its target population of almost one million children under the age of five.
“The polio vaccine has been taken for a long time in Africa, so I’m not afraid,” she says.
Meanwhile 86 per cent of Liberian respondents in the Afrobarometer survey said they considered prayer to be more effective than vaccination against Covid-19, compared to a regional average of 65 per cent.
The high level of public trust in religious leaders should be harnessed to increase uptake of the vaccine, according to Joyce Kilikpo, executive director of the Public Health Initiative civil society network.
“People trust pastors more than the public service,” she says. “To build trust in the vaccine, we need to work with these gatekeepers and I would have expected religious leaders to have been at the launch.”
Dr Jallah told the Telegraph that the government is speaking to church leaders and conducting community focus group discussions as well as using the media to encourage citizens to receive the vaccine.
But with cases relatively low, it is easy to understand why some Liberians are unsure why they need to take the vaccine at all.
And while only around 92,000 tests have been carried out in the population of almost five million since the start of the pandemic, hospitals have not reported abnormally high numbers of patients with respiratory symptoms.
“When it comes to the vaccine, I don’t want to fix what’s not broken,” says a public servant in his 40s, who wished to remain anonymous.
“There’s no sign of Covid here, even with all the crowds we see at banks and market places. It shows to me the whole issue might not be real. So what’s the essence of taking the vaccine if I don’t feel safe with it?” he said.