Religion’s blow against COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake: the case of Anloga District, Volta Region
It is described as the land of “water”, “sand” and “sun” and one of the six newly created districts in the Volta region by Legislative Instrument (LI) 2372, 2018.
Lying about 169 kilometres from Ghana’s capital, Accra, with a population size of about 96,000,the Anloga District, topped the health service delivery chart in the Volta region in 2020.
However, nearly three years into its onset, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving the District a run for its money placing it at the bottom of the Volta regions table for its districts’ coverage of COVID-19 vaccination.
From high apathy and indifference to low risk perceptions, strong spiritual inclinations and connotations, doubts about the existence of the COVID-19 virus, and, to an extent, political dispositions, health authorities in agrarian District are having a hard time getting constituents to take the COVID-19 jabs.
“The Bible City”; “Only way out is to repent”; and “Hell fire is real for sinners” were inscriptions that welcomed me to the home of 67-year-old evangelist Dogbey, who lives with his wife and children at Setsinu Avanukpota, a small community within the Anloga District.
Bounded by green vegetation often ruffled by gentle sea breeze, the abode of the Father of eight located on the outskirts of the community welcomes one with its serene ambiance.
However, Evangelist Dogbey and his family’s seclusion is not just to enjoy nature, but, to ‘preserve their righteous lives’ and make it to their Creator at the end of their lives here on earth.
In view of that, none of his children has ever been enrolled in formal school; all the children are home-schooled. Besides, they were all delivered at home and neither he nor any member of the family subscribes to any form of orthodox medication.
“As for me, I don’t like injections and orthodox medicines. They are white man’s medicines. I don’t like them and all my children don’t take them either, not when you are under my roof. We only use herbs,” he told me while I was on a fact-finding mission regarding the low uptake of COVID-19 vaccines in the District.
According to the Evangelist for 30 years, “COVID-19 is a punishment from God” and people whose ways are right with the Lord cannot be infected with the virus.
“I haven’t taken the vaccine and I will never take it. Since the disease came, I travel. I go and return always and I haven’t been infected.
“I want to see if God is real because if not, I would have been infected, so as for me, I know God will protect me as long as my ways are right with Him.”
Efo’s perception of the COVID-19 vaccines mirrors a deep-seated religious and highly radical stance against the COVID-19 vaccination not held only within the Anloga District, but also the entire Volta Region.
Thus, while the District remains at the bottom of the Region’s table for its districts’ coverage of COVID-19 vaccination, the Volta region also occupies same position on the national league with a vaccination rate of 18.2 percent compared with the national average of 50.1 percent.
Data available at the Regional Health Directorate indicates that as of July 31, 2022, a total of 566,110 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in the region as against the vaccination target of 1.4 million, out of the region’s 1.9 million total population.
Ho, the administrative and commercial capital of the Region, has the highest number of persons vaccinated against COVID-19, with Anloga being the least, with the entire region having over one million people unvaccinated by the end of July 2022.
“Issues here are a bit deeper than other places, although they cut across the region. They may be similar but here, the magnitude may be high. The belief systems here are very strong, especially when you have religious leaders who push hard against the uptake of the vaccines and because they command a lot of respect among the people, what they say sticks,” Ms. Perfect Titiati, the District Health Director, established in an interview.
According to her, a recent mass vaccination campaign (from August 12 to 18, 2022)had about 39 percent of the unvaccinated persons in the district taking their first jabs and 38 percent getting fully-vaccinated.
“We have a total target of about 76,000 out of which 13,479 have received at least the first dose and over 63,000 unvaccinated, so in the last campaign, a lot of effort was put into whipping up the interest among the residents towards vaccination.
“We did very extensive sensitisation in all the communities. We had stakeholders from diverse backgrounds coming to support us in diffusing some misconceptions about the vaccination and we were able to reach 3,059 out of the 4,000 we targeted under the campaign.”
Ghana’s Public Health Act, 2012 (Act 851)permits the government to trigger the International Health Regulations (IHR) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to provide public health response in case of international spread of a disease.
Among other public health measures instituted by the government to contain the spread ofCOVID-19, Ghana, with assistance from WHO and UNICEF, in March 2021, rolled out the National Vaccine Deployment Plan (NVDP) to inoculate at least 20 million people of its population to achieve 60 percent herd immunity by June 2021.
However, as of September 7, 2022, estimates from the Ghana Health Service (GHS) indicated that 11,456,256, representing 50.1percent of the targeted 22.9 million and 37percent of the country’s 31 million total population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Health authorities admit that high levels of vaccine hesitancy militated against Ghana’s vaccination drive due to factors, including misinformation, low risk perception, concerns about efficacy and safety as well as political and religious beliefs.
Per a report by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), countries that had not vaccinated 60 percent of their population by mid-2022, per the WHO target, are likely to register GDP losses totaling US$2.3trillion between 2022 and 2025.
Already, Ghana is facing a dire economic downturn with managers blaming the COVID-19 pandemic as major contributing factor to the recession.
Population scientist and lecturer at the Department of Population and Behavioural Sciences, School of Public Health (SPH) of the University of Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS), Hohoe, Dr Hubert Amu, notes that while diverse strategies have been deployed to encourage the vaccine acceptance, little has been done in the area of leveraging social education to get people to take the jabs.
“The factors influencing hesitancy so far cut across the whole country but from a research study we have conducted, these factors are more entrenched in these parts. The people here can best pass off as laggards and are so much held to their stereotypes and deep-rooted beliefs, which are difficult to permeate.
For instance, we have very indigenous African traditional and religious sects here and the region is home to some of the oldest religions you can find in the country even in terms of Christianity, so people here have long-held attitudes and beliefs that they would not want to alter and will need a lot of tact to get them to embrace or accept change.”
Dr Amu recommended that moving forward, social education is intensified, focusing on dispelling the rumours and misconception around the virus and vaccines to bridge the existing gaps.
“We should send the right people to the communities like medical doctors, community champions, community leaders; people they can believe more or trust to disseminate information; use the local language to communicate, and build trust in the health system to encourage the COVID-19 vaccine uptake,” he advised.
At a time the WHO is warning against complacency in the COVID-19 fight, calling for coordinated action and political commitments to save lives and prevent economic and health damage from the ongoing pandemic, Ghana would have to marshal all arsenals to reach its target in the nearest future.
This is even more crucial when in recent weeks, the country is witnessing a gradual rise in active COVID-19 infections; from 83 on June 26, 2022 to 458 as of September 27, 2022.
“Low vaccination rates make it easier for the virus to mutate, creating new variants that could potentially spread globally. The economic impact is just one reason. At its core, there’s a moral imperative,” the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, in a recently published report, cautions.