Liberia: No Time to Play Politics with Covid-19 Pandemic

Public health officials should manage this global COVID pandemic like medical professionals who care about the health of their citizens. This is no time to play politics with people’s lives. Yes, people are reluctant about vaccinations, but much of that fear stems from the lack of information, especially in a country with a high illiteracy rate.

 Throughout this vaccination process, there was a general lack of communication and information flow to the public about the vaccine, timelines, and expiration dates. The lack of information from official sources is one of the major reasons for mistrust between citizens and their government. Public health officials encourage fake news and rumors when they fail to effectively provide relevant information about the vaccination campaign.

Yes, people stood in lines at health facilities, churches, and community centers, but those numbers did not increase until June when people started dying every day from COVID, and sick people were seen hooked up to oxygen machines in the parking lot at JFK Medical Center.  There should have been as much information about the vaccine and its expiration date as there was about telling people mostly in Montserrado, to get vaccinated.

Liberia received 96,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine for its population of 4.5 million people. As of July 5, 2021, 85,132 people (including 18,921 health workers and 66,211 others) had been vaccinated. Of that total amount, 6,439 people have received second shots.

 My 89-year-old aunt is expected to take her second shot on July 16, but I am told that there are no vaccines. If vaccines exist, they are expired. The vaccine expired July 10, 2021. Did the Ministry of Health make any major public announcement about the expiration date? As a communication expert, I have not seen any communication strategy that is being implemented about the so-called vaccination campaign.

 It is not enough to have a press conference and talk about the number of COVID cases, number of deaths and trends. People need accurate, up-to-date information to make informed decisions.  Now, if I took my first shot six weeks ago and you tell me to return on July 16 for the second shot, I would assume that the vaccine would be available. Now, we are hearing (unofficially because the government has not made this public. People are scrambling for second shots) that there are no vaccines in the country. First, we heard new doses of vaccines would be available the second week in July.

 Now, we are hearing that the vaccines are expected the end of July and will be available to the public by August 15. We are also hearing that Liberia will also be getting more AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Johnson&Johnson. We are hearing that people who took AstraZeneca can take JJ for their second shot.

  In a population where people are already suspicious of the vaccine, you need to start doing awareness about this mixing of vaccines before the distribution begins.  The public needs to know what they will be taking and why. You cannot just give people anything and expect them to take it without understanding the implications.

Many people in this high-illiteracy rate population have android phones which give them access to the internet, but they cannot search Google to learn about these vaccines. They are depending on their government to give them the right information. The information should come from the public health officials, so that people do not rely on faked news and rumors.

The day I took my first shot, I told my driver he had to take the vaccine, too. I was not going to have him driving me around without being vaccinated. After we both had taken the shot, the nurse encouraged him to bring his wife and children. She also asked him if he had a 9-year-old daughter.

 He said, yes. She told him to bring his daughter for the “cancer vaccine.’’ Really?

She was referring to Gardasil, the vaccine known for preventing certain strains of HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer. The vaccine targets girls, as young as 9-years-old. (It is believed that it is more effective before the girl become sexually active) This vaccine was very controversial when it came out in America in 2006.

Though 120 countries have approved the drug, I never heard of any major public health campaign for Gardasil in Liberia. Information about Gardasil should be widely available as information about vaccines for childhood communicable diseases.

 In 2014, Liberia received the Gardasil vaccine, but the vaccination campaign was delayed because of the Ebola crisis. When Liberia was declared Ebola free, MOH hurriedly vaccinated young girls in a few counties because the vaccine was about to expire.  I am mentioning the Gardasil situation to show how public health officials do not do a good job informing the public about vaccines. The nurse did not explain to my driver what Gardasil was all about.

 Why should my driver care about preventing his daughter from getting cancer?  What kind of cancer was she talking about?   I am also sure there are parents, especially those with little or no education, who have agreed to Gardasil without knowing what it was all about. I had to explain Gardasil to my driver and encouraged him to read more about it on the internet, so he could have an informed opinion to determine whether his daughter takes it or not.  Vaccines are good but give people the information they need to make informed decisions about their family’s health.

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