Issued on: 11/05/2021 – 16:01
Disinformation online has led to a sluggish vaccine roll-out in Ivory Coast. Ivorian and international health authorities have told FRANCE 24 that they are concerned about the pandemic of fake news. While this problem is not unique to Ivory Coast, the West African state is lagging behind a number of other countries in the region when it comes to vaccination rates.
“When you get vaccinated, you become sick,” said Anderson Dago, an unemployed 25-year-old standing in a potholed street in Abidjan’s Yopougon neighborhood. “I read on social media that people who are vaccinated get controlled by 5G.” His view is typical of people living in the area.
“I don’t believe Covid-19 exists,” said Camara Djaka Sissoko who runs a small boutique. “White people cannot even handle a bit of malaria. We are tougher. We can resist Covid-19.”
Ivory Coast is facing a pandemic of disinformation. The country has received 504,000 doses of the Astrazeneca vaccine under the Covax scheme – an initiative coordinated by the World Health Organization and others, to ensure that less developed countries have access to Covid-19 vaccines. They arrived in Ivory Coast in late February and will expire in September. So far, just over half the vaccines (252,317) have been used. Ivory Coast also has 50,000 vaccines donated by the Indian embassy, which currently lie dormant in a refrigerator – these will expire in October. The roll-out here has been slower than in neighbouring countries such as Ghana.
‘There is so much fake news’
At the INHP vaccination center in Yopougon, Estelle Yapi cuts a lonely figure. The 47-year-old social worker, retrained as a nurse to help deliver jabs during this crisis, sits under a white tarpaulin as the afternoon sun beats down. Rows of chairs, set up for those waiting to receive inoculation, sit empty.
“It is normally busier in the morning,” she concedes.
Yapi estimates that at full capacity, this centre could deliver 200-300 doses a day. While demand has been picking up, on one day in March, soon after the vaccination programme had begun, just 14 shots were delivered.
The centre’s logistic director offered a direct explanation. “People inform themselves online. There is so much fake news,” said Jean-Baptists Yaté Elélé.
In April 2020, residents of the area destroyed a Covid-19 testing centre that was being built close by. The protesters were at least in part triggered by a Facebook post from a pro-opposition cyberactivist, known online as Serge Koffi Le Drône, who suggested that the site would be used to house sick Covid-19 patients and was a government conspiracy to kill people in the area.
Yaté said the link is clear. “There was a communications problem. There was disinformation that made people revolt,” he said.
A wave of scepticism
A study released by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in March surveyed 15 African countries, including Ivory Coast, interviewing close to 16,000 people. It noted that online channels, particularly on social media, tend to be the most trusted source of information among vaccine-sceptic groups.
In fact, 54 per cent of Ivorians surveyed said they had seen disinformation online – more than the 41 percent average across the 15 countries. Two-in-three Ivorians believe that the threat of coronavirus is exaggerated; two-in-five believe that Covid-19 is a planned event by foreign actors; and 38 percent believe that Africans are being used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials, according to the study.
Dr Richard Mihigo, coordinator of immunisation and vaccine development for the WHO’s Africa arm said that disinformation was higher in countries where there is higher penetration of internet usage.
“This is not a phenomenon that is only a problem for Africa. Unfortunately, with Covid-19, we’ve seen a global scepticism around vaccination for Covid-19 in general,” he said.
“When you put that in our contexts when we didn’t go through the first waves in a severe situation like was witnessed in the West, people started to think about why they [governments and international health authorities] are insisting so much on something which is not really a problem for us.”
‘We don’t give a damn about Corona!’
In 2020, a number of high-profile incidents saw the Ivorian authorities receive backlash online for alleged hypocrisy over Covid-19 policy.
In March that year a number of public figures close to the government were exempted from a stay in a quarantine centre after a personal intervention from the Prime Minister. The banning of public protests in the run up to the presidential election, under the Covid-19-induced state of emergency, was seen as political manipulation of the crisis. This sentiment deepened in August when a clip of President Alassane Ouattara went viral where he was seen saying “We don’t give a damn about Corona!” during his swearing-in as the candidate for the ruling RHDP party.
The influence of French media should also not be understated according to Professor Daniel Ekra, head of the country’s vaccination programme.
“This vaccination campaign was preceded by lots of rumours and disinformation. In Africa and especially in Ivory Coast, this was triggered in April or May  by someone during a TV debate in France saying that we should test the vaccine in Africa,” he said, referring to this incident.
In Ivory Coast, the government is scrambling to boost interest in vaccination with social media campaigns and Facebook Live events. Patrick Achi, the current PM, was the first person to get vaccinated in the country in an event covered by the media. But it may be some time before the tide of fake news can be turned.
“People make up their own minds. It is a question of communication,” said Ekra.