Nigeria: Special Report – Ondo Community Where Residents Refused Covid-19 Vaccines

“I intentionally didn’t go for COVID-19 test because I felt I didn’t have it. Although I’ve heard it kills people after some days, I don’t think it will get here,” a resident said.

As she sat on the low plastic stool, she focused on the bowl of tiny fresh fish she just brought from the creeks. Fitila Asogbon, 22, strapped her three-month-old baby on her back, while her three-year-old first child reclined his body on the wooden door of the bamboo house.

As she attended to questions from this reporter, her head remained fixed on the fish being prepared. She continued to peel the scale from the fish, yanked out the intestines and washed the fish with the rainwater in a white plastic bowl. She dumped the finished product in a black pot, as she prepared to make soup for breakfast.

Ms Asogbon, a hairdresser in Ebute-Ipare, a coastal community in Ilaje Local Government Area (LGA) of Ondo State, one of the oil-rich Niger Delta states in Nigeria, never had any reason to worry about the COVID-19 pandemic. For the mother of two, who had a young family to feed and other responsibilities to cater for, she just wanted to survive the untold hardship the restrictions had brought. The economy was badly affected and only a few customers wanted to make their hair. Testing for the virus was the least on her mind.

“I intentionally didn’t go for COVID-19 test because I felt I didn’t have it. Although I’ve heard it kills people after some days, I don’t think it will get here,” she said. “It’s only affecting people in the city and I’ve not heard that anyone around me contracted the virus,”

At the community health centre, which was just a 15-minute walk from her house, health workers waited with their kits for residents to get themselves tested for the virus. Ms Asogbon was unbothered and so were many residents.

They have heard about the virus and they have also learnt how deadly it is; but to them, it will take a long time and wreak more havoc in the hinterland before it gets close to the coastal areas.

When the vaccines also came, they tarried. Then, it became a matter of who goes first. If they look healthy after some weeks of taking the jabs, we might try it too.

“I have heard a lot of things about the virus, I believe some and I don’t believe others,” Ms Asogbon said. “I don’t want anything to happen to me, so I stayed away from the testing and vaccination. Thank God I’m not showing the symptoms.”

About five minutes’ walk from Ms Asogbon’s house lived 21-year-old Leke Ojatuase who shared the same thoughts as the mother of two.

When this reporter met Mr Ojatuase, he was peeling the back of a melon seed he had freshly uprooted from the back of his house to make a herbal concoction. He claimed the seed of the fruit is medicinal and that is what he relies upon any time he feels indisposed.

On hearing about the devastating COVID-19 disease, he began to fortify himself with the concoction, even to date.

Mr Ojatuase recalled how town criers rang bells across the community to inform residents that the COVID test was free of charge, but most people sat at home and others continued with their daily activities. Everyone was afraid, he said. They did not want to be locked up in isolation centres.

“The virus is not here. So, I’m not bothered about testing and vaccination since I don’t have it and I don’t know anyone who has it,” he said.

“I heard that for anyone who contracts the disease, it’s over for them. Death is the next thing.

“I heard the vaccine caused a serious reaction for some people who took it. We heard a lot of rumours about the negative sides of the vaccine. You know I’m a man. I don’t want to take any vaccine that can reduce my chances of having children in the future.”

At Ode-Etikan, a nearby fishing community, Iseoluwa Okorisa, a businessman in his late 40s, was scared at first. He had heard that the vaccine could lead to impotency, some said it contained a microchip that was designed to control the population.

Although Iseoluwa already had eight children, he was scared to take the vaccine. After all, if he is going to stop bearing children, he can not stand the thought of not being “man enough” after losing his ability to procreate. Above all, he could not yet cancel the idea of having more children.

“I didn’t go and a lot of people didn’t step into the health centre either. Then a friend of mine went to take the vaccine and he came back to convince me that there is no way it can affect my reproductive system,” Mr Okorisa said.

“So, I decided that even if some of my friends had decided not to take the vaccine because of the fear that it may affect their system, I have to go and take it since I already have enough children. Then, I started convincing others too after I took mine. So many people are still sceptical about taking the vaccine.”

In the neighbouring Araromi community, Kalejaye Ombowadun, a cleric and fisherman in his late 50s, walked to his house from the seashore where he took part in a fishing expedition. During the walk, he spoke of his initial disbelief about the disease and his indifference to the vaccine.

The information about the devastation of the virus had reached him from the news and hearsays about the vaccines too made their way through the community to his corridor. He waited until some people took the jab.

“At one point, I felt I had nothing to lose. I already have a lot of children. On the other hand, I thought that the government may start denying some people who do not take the virus access to some opportunities or programmes.

“I also realised that a time may come when those without vaccination cards may not be able to travel or access certain locations. So, I braved it and took the two required shots,” Mr Kalejaye said.

For Talabi Omomobi, if the vaccine would stop her from having more children as her colleagues at the fish market told her, so be it. After six children, she said, if the function of the vaccine would add to the contraceptive implant in her arm, the better it is. Her relatives in the city had enlightened her on why she needed to take the jabs and assured her it had no threatening side effects.

“As a fish seller, I come to the market very often and I meet a lot of people. My customers come from the eastern part of the country, some parts of the north and south-west too. How do I know who is infected or not? I don’t want to die yet. So, I rushed to take the vaccine.

“Among my colleagues who are women at the market, I think only about two of us have been administered the vaccine. Others often make jest of us,” she said.

“It’s really hard to convince people. The misconceptions that have been planted in their minds may take a longer time to go away. They don’t even think the COVID-19 disease exists in the first place. Some say it’s just malaria that was blown out of proportion, while some think it is just a hoax.”

‘You can’t wage war against a man with many children’

For coastal communities in the Ilaje-speaking area of south-west Nigeria, fishing remains the major occupation of the people. While these communities prize having lots of children who can then help parents with fishing expeditions, the fear of a vaccine that can affect fertility was unimaginable for many residents.

In an interview with Igbasan Asonja, the traditional ruler of Temidire community in the LGA, he said the Ilajes have a cultural belief that you do not count your children. So, when you ask them the number of children they have, they do not give an exact figure most times or decline to answer the question.

Mr Asonja noted that it is a cultural thing for the Ilaje people, who live along the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean, to have a lot of children. According to him, when a man who has one wife and a few children comes back from an expedition where he had caught a lot of fish, there is a high possibility that the majority of the fresh fish will get spoilt because he does not have enough human capacity to handle the harvest. But a man with more wives and many children will be able to handle the proceeds from the sea.

The young men follow their fathers to the sea, while the young women stay with their mothers in the kitchen to smoke the fish and sell them at the market. That way, they believe, you do not have to hire extra hands. The money stays within and boosts the family income. Hence, a fisherman is expected to marry more wives and sire more children if he desires to prosper.

“Also, in the olden days, we believed that it is hard to wage war against a man with many children. You’d have to think twice because he has an army to resist external aggression. That is the genesis,” he said.

Mr Asonja has six children and to him, that is enough. So, when he heard about the rumour that the vaccine could cause impotence, he did not fret. As a community leader, he had to show an example. He took two jabs and is currently expecting the booster shot when it arrives.

“When the vaccines came out, the first rumour that spread like wildfire was that a magnet could easily stick to the arm of anyone who takes the vaccine,” he said.

He said the second rumour they heard was that the vaccine would be used to control the population of the world, especially in Africa. Then, they also heard that it has to do with the biblical ‘666 mark of the beast’ and a new world order that anyone who gets the vaccine is initiated into.

“Then, we started the work of educating the community members to correct the misinformation. We told them they may not have access to some government services if they are not vaccinated,” Mr Asonja said.

“When the state government intervened and said people must get vaccinated, some people started coming out. When those who were hesitant about it saw that those of us who took the jab didn’t experience any serious side-effect, some people also came out. So, I started speaking with my people about the benefits of being vaccinated, especially the elderly ones.”

In some of the health centres visited by this reporter in different communities in the local government, from Ebute-Ipare to Ode-Etikan, Zion-Pepe, Araromi, Mahin and Ugbonla, health workers were stationed in strategic positions with boxes, coolers and other equipment for administering the vaccine, but residents were not on sight. Patients were mainly at the facilities for non-COVID-related treatments. For most of the day, the health workers sit and wait, hoping some residents would come for the vaccine; and when the day is over, they return the vaccines to the store.

“Our Body, Our Choice”

In September 2021, Rotimi Akeredolu, governor of Ondo State, issued a two-week ultimatum for workers in the state to get the vaccine, saying the vaccination card will be required from civil servants before they can access some facilities. That was after the governor and his wife took the jabs and urged the residents to shun unfounded rumours about the vaccine.

Owing to the low vaccination rate in the state, in June 2022, the state government issued another directive for public officials to get the vaccine. Francis Faduyile, the special adviser to the governor on health, said only 16 per cent of the eligible population in the state had been fully vaccinated while 30 per cent were partially vaccinated.

Recent data from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHDA) shows that Ondo is one of the least-performing states in COVID-19 vaccination.

As of October 24, the NPHCDA stated that about 47.6 million Nigerians were fully vaccinated, which is 42 per cent of the total eligible persons targeted for vaccination in Africa’s most populous nation.

In an interview with Jide Famose, head of the department of primary health care in Ilaje, he said there has been vaccine hesitancy among the people and the vaccination rate in the LGA is less than 30 per cent so far. The LGA has fifteen COVID-19 vaccination sites, mainly at Primary Healthcare Centres (PHCs).

Mr Famose, a medical doctor, further noted that the misconceptions about the vaccine contributed to the low rate of vaccination in the LGA. He said some people also believe that drinking the salty water from the Atlantic Ocean can help them fight the virus.

“Initially, Ilaje had a very low infection rate. So many residents were not even interested in being tested and would not come out for the vaccine either. Then, we began a community outreach. We made use of community mobilizers who would move from house to house to enlighten the people about the vaccine. That was when we started seeing more people coming out to be vaccinated,” Mr Famose said.

“However, the misconceptions are still there. Even when the state government announced a compulsory vaccination for all eligible persons, especially workers, some still did not take it. They said they won’t take it for the sake of their generation, that it is their body their choice.”

According to Sola Tomoloju, the social mobilisation officer for the local government, his team resorted to market jingles and community dialogues in order to get the people out to take the vaccine.

“We also went to the seashore to meet the fishermen as they returned from their expeditions to speak with them. We also went through the traditional rulers who had to get vaccinated just to convince their people that the vaccine is safe,” Mr Tomoloju said. The strategy deployed by Mr Tomoloju’s team is in line with the COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign introduced by the NPHCDA in conjunction with state governments to boost access the vaccines in Nigeria.

According to the latest bi-weekly report of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (NCDC), the country has recorded a total of 265,651 COVID-19 cases and 3,155 deaths since the outbreak began in 2020.

On 2 March 2021, Nigeria received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines. Since then, the country has received millions of doses of vaccines.

False link of COVID-19 to infertility?

In a series of posts, the NPHCDA noted that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine affects fertility and it does not alter the DNA.

“COVID-19 vaccine was not developed using controversial substances such as fetal tissues, implants, microchips or tracking devices. It was not developed to kill Africans. The vaccine used in Africa is the same being used in Europe, America and Asia. The vaccine does not affect one’s fertility,” the agency said.

This assertion is further corroborated by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The organisation stated that there is currently no evidence that vaccine ingredients or antibodies made following COVID-19 vaccination would cause any problems with conception at any point in one’s life.

In an interview with Best Ordinioha, a professor of community medicine and public health faculty of clinical sciences at the University of Port Harcourt (UNIPORT), he said the disinformation around the vaccine is fostered by the “anti-vax movement” with the aim of discouraging people from being vaccinated.

He added that this is achieved through information warfare and organised campaigns against certain philanthropists whose donations ensured that COVID-19 vaccines are made available to poor developing countries, who may be unable to buy the vaccines.

“This huge philanthropic donation, which was done purely for humanitarian reasons, is now been posted on social media to have been made to allow Bill Gates to insert a microchip that bears the 666 mark of the beast into the recipients of the vaccines,” Mr Ordinioha said.

“Do not spend excessive amounts of time debunking specific myths. This may have the opposite effect of strengthening the myth in the person’s mind; focus on the facts, simply identify the myth as false,” the don said.

He noted that vaccine hesitancy was identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as one of the top ten global health threats of 2019.

As Nigeria continues to record a low infection rate, the fear of the virus seems to be dwindling and this is evident in the low turnout rate at the vaccination centres compared to when the jabs first arrived and restrictions were placed on unvaccinated residents. Now, everyone goes about their daily business.

The implication, Mr Ordinioha said, is that the poor uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine reduces herd immunity and the ability of the country to deal with future outbreaks of the disease.

This report was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.


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