Under a blazing sun, two Cameroonian health workers, Irene and Lucienne, try to convince passers-by to be vaccinated against Covid. They accost a young man in his thirties, who refuses to accept.
“I don’t trust the vaccine,” Ramos says at the outset. “White people don’t like us. They want to kill us with vaccines in which they introduce illicit products,” he says.
In Cameroon, one of the sub-Saharan African countries most affected by Covid-19 with more than 107,000 infections, including 1,795 deaths, preconceived ideas, and misinformation on social networks are holding back the vaccination campaign.
Only 4.1% of the population aged over 18 has been vaccinated since the first doses were administered seven months ago, according to the Ministry of Health, a long way from the stated objective of 40%, five weeks before the African Cup of Nations scheduled to take place in the country.
Faced with the reluctance of Cameroonians, the government has launched a double vaccination campaign: one of 5 days, from November 17 to 21, targeting the entire population, and another of one month, from November 10 to December 10, for civil servants.
Irene and Lucienne positioned themselves in the early hours of the day in front of a small public hospital in Odza, a neighborhood of Yaoundé, where a vaccination post had been opened.
Their deployment, in the middle of the street, on a busy road leading to the airport, aims to arouse the interest of passers-by. But, says Lucienne, “very few” accept the proposal. “It is very difficult to convince. There is a real psychosis among Cameroonians,” she admits.
The day before, she reports, “someone threatened to punch me if I persisted in offering him the vaccine.
The argument that comes up the most is that the “Europeans” (referring more generally to Westerners, editor’s note) want to kill us,” adds Irene, her colleague.
The two young women try to convince another passer-by, Jamiro. She also declines the offer to be vaccinated.
“I read on the internet, and also learned in the street, that this vaccine makes you sterile”, she worries.
“The reluctance of the population is the result of disinformation through social networks,” David Messy, an agent of the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI, a government initiative), explained to AFP.
“Some Cameroonians in the diaspora send messages to those in the country to present the supposed harm of this vaccination,” he accuses, while “vaccination protects”.
“The government strongly and firmly encourages all populations to be vaccinated,” pleads Manaouda Malachie, Minister of Health, on CRTV, the state radio. “We have enough doses for everyone,” he said.
But authorities need to do more to convince. “The biggest challenge is getting the right information to the people, who need to make their choice based on facts and not just opinions drawn from social networks,” says Professor Yap Boum II, regional representative of Epicentre, the research and epidemiology arm of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).
“There are 30 times fewer deaths among vaccinated people than among unvaccinated people,” he continues.
“We have to go and vaccinate Paul Biya,” says an old man in the street who is offered the vaccine. Unlike other countries where heads of state have been publicly vaccinated, in Cameroon it is not known whether Mr. Biya, 88 years old, 39 of them in power, is vaccinated or not.
His Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, and some of his ministers have taken their shots on camera.
But some Cameroonians still question the existence of the virus, deeming the vaccine useless. “I’m not interested in the vaccine because I haven’t seen anyone sick yet. I doubt the existence of this disease,” says Jeannette Aboudi, 53, an orange seller in the market of Nfou, a small town in central Cameroon.
Andréa, a young woman in her twenties, has no hesitation since her aunt contracted respiratory distress from the virus. “After that, the family decided that everyone should be vaccinated,” she says, adding that she recently took her first dose.