Combating COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Garissa

Halima prepares a vaccine dose for a patient at Garissa Referral Hospital
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

This story first appeared in The Star newspaper.

It is early Friday morning at Garissa Referral Hospital, the main COVID-19 vaccination centre in Garissa town, where infection rates have recently been increasing. In an open-air shelter, with a wooden roof to provide shade from the harsh sun, two masked health workers set up a cool box full of vaccine vials and syringes, and a laptop to register people coming for vaccination. There is a long bench for people to sit while waiting for their shots, but it is mostly empty.

One of the few people to arrive for vaccination is English teacher Lucy Ndwinga. She pulls the sleeve of her blouse down from her shoulder, while health worker Halima Mohamed fills a syringe with the clear liquid. Lucy turns her head and looks away as Halima pushes the slender needle into her arm and presses down the plunger until the vaccine is all gone. Afterwards, Lucy sits for 15 minutes to make sure she does not have any dizziness or other side effects.

“Now that I have been vaccinated, I feel protected and safer,” Lucy says. “I am urging all the other teachers to come and get the COVID-19 vaccine, so that we can protect ourselves from this disease and go back to our normal lives.”

But despite the havoc that COVID-19 is wreaking in Garissa, the well-stocked vaccination centre and the dozens of people fighting for breath in the hospital’s nearby intensive care unit, there is only a slow trickle of people coming in to get vaccinated. At lunchtime, the hospital staff pack up their supplies and leave, having vaccinated less than 10 people in the whole morning. Vaccine hesitancy is rife.

Mobilising religious leaders

UNICEF has transported over 21 million COVID-19 vaccines to Kenya in 2021 and is supporting the Ministry of Health to get these into people’s arms. To tackle vaccine hesitancy, the children’s organisation has partnered with religious leaders – including in Garissa – to help spread the word about vaccination.

“COVID-19 has impacted people in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly,” Abdullahi Abagira, Health Specialist at UNICEF’s Garissa Zonal Office says. “UNICEF has supported the supply chain system, to deliver vaccines around the country and the roll out in terms of capacity building of health workers. On health promotion, religious leaders have been instrumental to support the vaccination and prevention drives.”

Former Garissa MP Aden Sugow and son walk towards KWS Mosque for Friday prayers
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

Later, at a nearby mosque, the call to Friday prayers echoes out from speakers inside the thin minarets that tower above the white-washed building. Worshippers take off their shoes and wash their hands and feet before entering the mosque – a hygiene practice that predates COVID-19 by over 1,400 years. They chat in small groups and then move inside for the sermon. Some bring their sons with them, young and older boys in Islamic kanzu tunics. Once the crowd has settled, the local imam, Sheikh Omar Dagane, preaches about the importance of vaccination.

After the sermon, he explains: “As the imam of this community, it is my responsibility to advise the people on anything that relates to their welfare. Today, I spoke to my congregation about preventing COVID-19 by taking the vaccine. I quoted one of the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad, who was asked by a follower whether he should tie his camel. He replied: ‘Trust in Allah but tie your camel.’ In the same way, we should Trust in Allah but get vaccinated, wear our masks and wash our hands to keep ourselves protected.”

Isak Abdi, a 40-year old father and education manager, is one of the members of the congregation who was convinced by the sermon. “I listened to today’s sermon by the imam and to the health official,” he says afterwards. “I have now made up my mind to go and take the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Isak Abdi (left) discusses his concerns about vaccination with Sheikh Omar Dagane (right)
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

National vaccination drive

To scale up the work happening in Garissa and elsewhere, UNICEF launched a new vaccination drive in partnership with the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK) and Ministry of Health, at an event in Nairobi in December. The new drive includes opening up over 280 places of worship – including churches, mosques and temples – as vaccination centres, so that congregations can get vaccinated immediately after listening to a sermon on the subject.

“We have vaccines in the country, what we need is to turn them into vaccinations,” UNICEF Representative to Kenya Maniza Zaman said at the launch event. “This is why the kind of leadership we are seeing today from the religious community is so needed and wholeheartedly welcome. Religious leaders play a vital role in increasing numbers of people getting vaccinated. When you speak, your congregations listen and follow your guidance. You reach out to marginalized members of society.”

At the end of the event, which was held at the Christian Student Leadership Centre, several religious leaders got vaccinated in front of TV cameras, to publicly show their commitment to the campaign. These included Reverend Godfrey Ochieng, of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya. “I decided to take the lead to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and dispel the myths out there,” he said. “It is important to get vaccinated to protect ourselves, especially now that we have new variants.”

Rev Godfrey Ochieng after receiving his COVID-19 vaccination in Nairobi
© UNICEF Kenya/2021/Lameck Orina

With over 21 million COVID-19 vaccines now in Kenya, there are enough doses to meet the Government’s target of vaccinating 10 million people by the end of the year. The challenges now are to bring the vaccines to where people are and make sure people are ready to receive them. But with religious leaders of all denominations on board to support the campaign, there is every reason to hope that Kenya can turn the corner on the pandemic and ensure that all vulnerable people and essential workers get fully vaccinated in the coming months.

With Omicron the latest COVID-19 variant to threaten the world, there is no time to lose.

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