Ms Elizabeth Kamene Wambua will not get vaccinated against Covid-19, even when vaccine doses are made available.
The Yatta, Machakos County resident is hesitant: she would rather stay without the vaccine than be inoculated with something that will cause her blood to “freeze”. She just heard that the vaccination drive is a way of initiating people into “illuminati”.
While the claims may sound bizarre to many, she is not alone as far as conspiracy theories go. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it fear, misinformation and lots of fake news, driving many, including Kenyans, to shy away from getting the coronavirus vaccine.
And in Kenya's case, political leaders seem to be making matters worse.
“Our leaders are not talking to us about vaccines, we are following what we are being told by people who can access social media or the internet. Their silence is contributing to the vaccine apathy,” she says.
120 kilometres away in Nairobi, Ms Catherine Muli, a beautician, says she does not trust the vaccine either.
“Why are our leaders not getting the vaccine? People are getting inoculated with water,” she said.
Last week, Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe warned Kenyans against buying the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines, saying they could be getting water instead of the real thing. While his warning to members of the public may have been well intended, some fear that the statement may fuel more conspiracy theories.
There is currently no data available to measure the effects of misinformation on vaccine apathy in the country. However, Nation.Africa set out to establish how widespread vaccine apathy was on social media channels.
By setting up lists on Twitter, Nation.Africa was able to track the different forms of misinformation circulating online about Covid-19 vaccines.
For instance, while commenting on Denmark’s donation of 358,700 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Kenya, a Twitter user going by the handle @mureithikiarie implied that since the Nordic State was the first European country to stop the use of the vaccine within its borders, Kenya was now a “dumping ground” for the unused doses.
“They were the first country to condemn and stop vaccinations using AstraZeneca. Why Africa and Kenya is in particular a dumping ground, why not give South Africa, Uganda, TZ, but find it easy to offload here? Our leaders have failed us,” he said.
Another user, @DescentIncan said: “I thought we catch the cold or flu because we get infected with new strains. Yet the body figures a way out - over and over. Same logic. Knowing AstraZeneca barely helps, for example, against the SA variant, do I shop for as many jabs as will cover the spectrum of ever increasing variants?”
@Kaiontour2020 said: “Denmark stopped AstraZeneca and Johnson shots due to side effects. They gave thousands of doses to Germany. Now much more doses to Kenya. I pray for the people of Kenya.”
According to Dr Ahmed Kalebi, a consultant pathologist and the president of the International Academy of Pathology in East Africa, political leaders need to examine their role in Covid-19's spread and behave more responsibly.
“This is basically driven by leaders’ actions of commission or omission,” he said.
He reckons that political leaders can do more and “responsibly lead the population in mitigating the pandemic” until there is adequate herd immunity from vaccination.
Utterances by politicians and senior government officials, as well as lack of prompt forthright support for the vaccines contributed to the apathy seen earlier on in Kenya, he said.
“If leaders had taken up vaccination immediately, with gusto, it would have had great impact to show how serious the issue is and also echoed the usefulness of the vaccine,” he said, adding that vaccination numbers started to go up when some leaders publicly took the vaccine.
“Look at DRC and South Sudan where vaccines are expiring because of poor uptake, a clear failure of leadership. So even though there is a vaccine shortage, leaders, including politicians in Parliament, should be pushing harder, to seek vaccines as that will resonate with the public to demonstrate the seriousness of the pandemic and need of the vaccine.”
At the end of 2020, former Kiambu Governor William Kabogo, in a video shared widely on social media, explained how we was keeping coronavirus at bay. In the clip, the former governor said he was sharing tips of how to fight Covid-19. He talks about steaming with a concoction of lemon, onion, garlic, ginger, orange peels, guava leaves, neem and Warburgia ugandensis leaves as well as sea salt.
“The steam is what fights the virus … you have to do it for three four five minutes if you can hold it,” he says in the clip.
“Burn the d*** virus. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Health does not tell you to fight this thing, telling you to wash your hands, keep your distance and wear masks. But my friends, I want to tell you that this virus hates heat,” he said.
He goes on to say, “This is what I propose, when you do this in the village, you will be able to fight Covid-19 because the virus does not love heat. When the heat is above 70 degrees, it will burn and lack energy. With your energy and God, you will be helped and you will not be affected by death from Covid-19,” he further claimed.
But it is not proven that inhaling steam can stop a person contracting Covid-19, such utterances from leaders may dissuade people from following scientific guidelines to instead opt for home-based remedies.
According to Dr Kalebi, leaders’ utterances and actions of downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic have fuelled misinformation and disinformation.
“You just need to look at the times when politicians and prominent people succumbed to Covid-19 during the peak of the second wave, whereby their peers became serious and that seriousness was replicated in the general public, with people taking masking, social distancing and hand washing more seriously. But when the leaders relaxed, then the general public also relaxed,” he said.
Dr Bernard Muia, a public health expert, and the Murang’a County Board chairman for Health and Sanitation, says: “When there is political will, we can control the situation. Their (political leaders’) lack of adherence to protocols and public health measures drive a message to the masses that further fuels misinformation.”
He also reckons political leaders should be at the forefron of creating awareness on Covid-19 vaccines so that the uptake can improve, adding that increased political gatherings will stop people from following Covid-19 protocols.
“By June 20, we expect an increase in Covid-19 cases because of the recent rallies in Kisumu,” he said.
According to him, Kenyans still seem to lack information on Covid-19, despite the virus having been in the country for the past one year. The vacuum is what is fuelling misinformation on social media, he said.
For example Mwenda Pole @MwendaPoleee on Twitter says “Nilisikia mtu akipata Covid-19 vaccine hapaswi kuobey Covid rules, wala kuvaa mask. Ni ukweli @MOH_Kenya ama uyu jamaa ananimislead? (I heard that when a person is vaccinated against Covid-19, they are not supposed to follow Covid protocols or wear masks. Is it true @MOH_Kenya or is somebody misleading me?”
According to Titus Okello @TitusOkello15 “Kenya is one of the African countries that was the first to receive the Covid-19 vaccine hence the number of positive results and deaths has reduced tremendously. #KenyaYaendelea”.
But there is no research that has been done to show the correlation between the two.
In another tweet, Jimmy Kimani Kariuki @jimmykimanikar1 said, “How come Congo, then South Sudan? Have they been hiding these vaccines? Sudan does not have people or because they know it is not good for their people, so Kenya is taking it from them to use it here?? When did Congo and South Sudan start manufacturing of Covid-19 (vaccine)? They will be exposed,” he said.