On July 4, 2021, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health Dr Abel Makubi said during a press conference in the capital Dodoma that the government already has guidelines in place for the importation and storage of COVID-19 vaccines. The latest announcement by the government follows its change in approach in dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic in line with the presidential committee’s recommendations that advised the Samia Suluhu Hassan Administration to embrace science in addressing the pandemic. Tanzania says that the COVID-19 jabs will be provided free of charge and on a voluntary basis.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the successful campaign of inoculating a larger portion of the Tanzanian population will depend on an individual’s willingness and trust towards immunization. This is exactly what experts around the world have been worried about because what happens if people do not want the vaccine? It will be misleading to assume that just because COVID-19 has devastated the lives of many people, all of them will be willing to take the shots.
This is also true for Tanzania whose people’s overall rate of receiving the vaccine is unfortunately still not known. If the vaccines become available in Tanzania, it might be possible to develop herd immunity and thus protect people against the deadly disease. But with either unknown or low levels of public trust and willingness to receive COVID-19 jabs, it will be problematic to manage and control the pandemic’s impacts. So what should happen?
Education is key
Education is recognized to play a key role in influencing people’s willingness to accept the COVID-19 vaccine. It is a bitter truth that some Tanzanians, both in rural and urban areas, are not informed enough to understand how vaccines work. This situation makes it necessary to invest heavily in mass public awareness campaigns through multiple sources, including the media, to counter some misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines that unfortunately are entertained even by lawmakers and even former Tanzanian leader the late John Magufuli.
But ignorance is just one of the factors that influence people’s unwillingness towards accepting COVID-19 vaccines. Occupation could also do the same as some individuals obtain their incomes in risky environments likely to be more or less vulnerable to transmissions of the COVID-19 disease. Such an incident could put them in the position of disregarding or considering the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Other factors include age where older people might have a sense of responsibility and accountability for their families compared to the youngest age group. The marital status could also affect the communities’ willingness considering that married individuals feel like they are dependable over others given their collective family responsibilities. Traditional perspectives, incomes, political leaning, perceived severity of COVID-19, conventional beliefs in vaccination against disease, vaccine harms, compliance with community COVID-19 mitigation strategies are other factors worth considering when thinking about COVID-19 willingness.
Precaution is no substitute for vaccine
As the government announces that taking COVID-19 jabs will be voluntary, it is important to remind ourselves that personal precautionary responses cannot work as a substitute for vaccination to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is very well explained by the President of Global Health Initiative Dr Tom Frieden, a US infectious disease and public health physician: “Unvaccinated people are not only at much higher risk of infection than vaccinated people, but they are also at higher risk of severe COVID-19 disease when they get infected. Vaccination drive will almost eliminate your risk of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus.”
The truth is that it will be very difficult for Tanzania to attain herd immunity if COVID-19 vaccines will be provided on a voluntary basis. And while I cannot suggest a mandatory vaccination program, I think the government has a tough job of changing people’s perceptions of COVID-19. Given that young adults seem to be more fluid than other fixed-age groups in the community, it will be easier to siphon in the rest who might not be interested during the vaccination campaigns.
A good starting point may be the incorporation of social, behavioural, and communications interventions on human factors relevant to vaccine acceptance. The government should take a community-centred approach towards vaccination by making sure that people participate as active partners of health outcomes and not passive subjects. For example, when Ebola was outbreaking in West Africa, their governments partnered with the communities to surmount issues of public trust and delivered a necessary behaviour change.
Effective communication as a strategy
The existing prevalence of misinformation about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines will definitely affect the government’s vaccination efforts. However, effective communications will help to reduce such problems based on information sharing and engagement with our communities about the COVID-19 vaccines.
The effective communication strategy will involve keeping politics out of the COVID-19 vaccines program. This calls on the Tanzanian authorities to make sure that public health associations and their associated partners take the front seats in carrying out the programs instead of relying on politicians who will probably create more questions than answers.
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 vaccine is a small shed of light at the end of a dark tunnel. While our hearts go out to the people we have love and lost, the people who never got to see that light, we must insist on the need to save our communities from the deadly disease so that it claims no other life of our loved one. It is the role of our government, alongside all people from all classes, languages, and ethnicity in the country, to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government will play its part in making the vaccines available to the people. Our part as this county’s residents will be making sure that we take the jabs. Changes do not start with the government. It starts with you.
Jerry Mosses is a Research Assistant at UdSM and SDGs consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. You can reach him through email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @jerrysonmosses. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Would you like to publish in this space? Contact our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries.