Religious leaders combat Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in Garissa

There are enough doses to vaccinate 10 million people countrywide by the end of the year.

In Summary

•Unicef has transported over 21 million Covid-19 vaccines to Kenya in 2021 

•Once the crowd has settled, the local imam, Sheikh Omar Dagane, preaches about the importance of vaccination.

 

Health worker Halima prepares a Covid-19 vaccine dose for a patient at Garissa Referral Hospital.
Health worker Halima prepares a Covid-19 vaccine dose for a patient at Garissa Referral Hospital.
Image: UNICEF Kenya/Lameck Orina

It is early Friday morning at Garissa Referral Hospital, the main Covid-19 vaccination centre in Garissa town, where Covid-19 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.

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 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 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.”

Isak Abdi (left) discusses his concerns about vaccination with Sheikh Omar Dagane (right)
Isak Abdi (left) discusses his concerns about vaccination with Sheikh Omar Dagane (right)
Image: UNICEF Kenya/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. 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.”

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.