ArticlesFellowship 2021

Information Disorder and COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy in Ghana

Introduction

Ghana reported its first case of SARS COV 2 (Covid-19) on 12 March 2020, three months after the virus was first discovered in Wuhan, China. As of 25th August 2021, the country had recorded 116,441 cases, with 108,469 recoveries and 991 deaths (GHS, 2021). The government has adopted various strategies, including lockdown in major cities and nationwide vaccination, to curtail the spread of the virus. Vaccination is regarded by experts as one of the most effective and cost-efficient means of treating and preventing transmission of diseases in any country during a pandemic (Bloom, 2011). Among other things, vaccination helps achieve herd immunity, a situation where the majority (over two-thirds) of the population are immune to an infection.

Ghana’s government intends to vaccinate 20 million people in 2021. In furtherance of this goal, the government is in the process of procuring 17 million doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines. On 24 February 2021, Ghana became the first country in the world to receive Covid-19 vaccines under the Covax facility (United Nations, 2021). In all, 1,271,393 doses of the vaccines have been administered so far (GHS, 2021). The country also took delivery of 177,600 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on 7 August and immediately started administering to people in selected areas. Although official figures on the number of Johnson & Johnson administered doses are not available, media reports suggest that many people thronged vaccination centres for their shots (Ghana News Agency, 2021). 

For the Covid-19 vaccination programmes to succeed in limiting transmission and mortality, a significant proportion of the population should be vaccinated (MacDonald, 2015). Concerns about Covid-19 vaccines being a means of government surveillance abound in some sub-Saharan African countries (Dzinamarira et al, 2021). This raises questions about the willingness of the general public to vaccinate and the role of information disorder or misinformation. As Ghana awaits the arrival of more vaccines and with the confirmation that the Delta variant of Covid-19 has been recorded in the country, there is the need for the government to step up campaigns to clear the scepticism among the populace. Accordingly, this multifaceted study is being conducted to examine the effect of misinformation on acceptance of Covid-19 vaccines, people’s susceptibility to misinformation, factors that influence the uptake or rejection of the vaccines, and audience motivation to share or consume Covid-19 vaccination misinformation.

Exposure to Covid-19 Misinformation

Different countries have been exposed to different types of Covid-19 misinformation (Roozenbeek et al, 2021). In Ghana, Covid-19 misconceptions initially were largely on causes and vulnerability. Speculations about black people having some immunity against Covid-19 and that severe cases of Covid-19 were recorded among the elderly were prominent (Tabong & Segtub, 2021). Misinformation, conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated rumours and speculations play a critical role in influencing vaccine hesitancy and refusal (Nuzhath et al, 2021; Salathé, 2013; Cohen, 2009). For instance, people were unwilling to vaccinate against the 2009 swine flu outbreak, owing to conspiracy theories about the efficacy and safety of the vaccine shots (Cohen, 2009). Vosoughi et al. (2018) aver that conspiracy theories about politics, terrorism, natural disasters and diseases diffuse significantly farther, faster, deeper, and wider than the truth in all categories of information. 

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, governments and institutions around the world had been working to address the menace of information disorder. Studies have shown that the pandemic has worsened the already volatile information disorder syndrome (WHO, 2019). Studies show that physical proximity and perceived severity of the pandemic tend to influence people to share unverified information about Covid-19 (Islam et al, 2020; Huang et al., 2015). The spread and acceptability of misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines is enabled by negative social media sentiments, inadequate information, and distrust in political authorities and the media (Nuzhath et al, 2021). Laato et al (2020) also identified information overload and undue trust in online sources as reasons for the avalanche of unverified and false Covid-19 information on social media. 

For instance, when Ghana received the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines, speculations were rife that the shipment marked the commencement of the agenda to alter people’s DNAs and reduce the African race through vaccination (Agyekum et al, 2021). Information disorder poses a serious risk to vaccine acceptance. COVID-19 vaccination programmes rely heavily on the population’s willingness to accept the vaccine (Acheampong et al, 2021). The potential for misinformation to erode the gains made by the government and cause vaccine refusal is high (Cerda & Garcia, 2021). Information disorder can also brew mistrust, confusion, polarization and sociocultural tensions (Wardle, & Derakhshan, 2017).

Covid-19 Vaccine Hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy occurs when many people in a population are reluctant to undergo vaccination against diseases and it is caused by mistrust, fears about unknown future side effects, conspiracy theories and religious beliefs, among others (Jennings et al, 2021; Razai et al, 2021; Roozenbeek et al, 2020). Research on Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in Africa has produced varying findings. In Ghana, 51% of urban adults indicated that they were likely to take the Covid-19 vaccine if made generally available (Acheampong et al, 2021) whereas Zimbabwe and South Africa have Covid-19 vaccine acceptance rates of 52% and 50% respectively. Brackstone et al (2021) also established that the willingness to vaccinate among Ghanaians dropped from 82% in March to 71% in June 2021. Even among health workers in Ghana, only 39% had intentions to receive Covid-19 vaccine shots (Agyekum et al, 2021). A survey conducted in five West African countries (Benin, Liberia, Niger, Senegal, and Togo) found that only 40% of the people expressed confidence and would likely take the vaccine jabs, if they had the opportunity (Seydou, 2021).  

Generally, Covid-19 vaccine acceptance rate is higher in Europe and the United States than in Africa and the Middle East (Sallam, 2021). The rate of acceptability in sub-Saharan African countries is lower than the 70% minimum vaccine threshold required to achieve herd immunity. Extant literature indicates that the willingness to receive Covid-19 vaccines varies across countries and other demographic indicators, such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, income and education (Robertson et al, 2021; Acheampong et al, 2020). In the United Kingdom, minorities (Blacks and South Asians of Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent) were found to have a much higher vaccine hesitancy than White British. Consequently, as of 11 March 2021, British of Black African and Black Caribbean heritage had 63.7% vaccination rate, compared with White British (91.3%) (Razai et al, 2021).

Information Disorder and Vaccine Hesitancy

Information disorder is a major threat to vaccine uptake. People who are exposed to conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines tend to have lower acceptance rate than those who have not heard, seen, or read such misinformation (Roozenbeek et al, 2021). These rumours thrive in times of distress and great uncertainty to satisfy people’s longing for information, especially when there are gaps in knowledge (Roldan de Jong, 2021). Africa has had cases of unsuccessful vaccination initiatives. For instance, due to misinformation, underpinned by religion, polio immunization was largely unsuccessful in Northern Nigeria in 2003-2004 (Jegede, 2007). Social media provides the unfettered access to anti-vaccine campaigners to rapidly spread conspiracy theories and increase the information disorder syndrome around the vaccines. Robertson et al (2020) found that the majority of the people who received vaccine-related information on social media had a higher tendency to be misinformed and less receptive to the vaccines. 

Even though these conspiracy theories have been fact-checked and debunked by experts and media agencies, their spread continues unabated through fake websites and social media accounts, trendy hashtags, videos, memes and social feeds (Kandel, 2020). A study by Vosoughi, Roy and Aral (2018) indicates that fake news and lies spread faster than real news on social media. This trend is worrying because there are an increasingly high number of people who turn to social media and other online sources for health information. Studies in Ghana show that social media plays a role in misinforming people about Covid-19 vaccines (Acheampong et al, 2020; Agyekum et al, 2021). The low acceptance among people of colour and other minority groups ties in with the popular conspiracy theories that the vaccines can modify DNA, reduce the Black population, and track movement through the microchip implant (Tabong & Segtub, 2021). 

Conclusion

The studies cited in this research are consistent with the view that misinformation can prevent healthy behaviours and promote erroneous practices that can result in rapid spread of the virus and highlight the need for further research on Covid-19 vaccine and information disorder. The studies conducted in Ghana identified information disorder as one of the major causes of vaccine hesitancy (Acheampong et al, 2021; Agyekum et al, 2021; Tabong & Segtub, 2021). To this end, the present study will comprehensively explore how information disorder affects vaccine uptake and further examine people’s experiences with vaccine misinformation.

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