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‘They thought Covid only kills white people’: myths and fear hinder jabs in DRC | Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Dr Christian Mayala and Dr Rodin Nzembuni Nduku sit together on a bench outside the Covid ward at Kinshasa’s Mama Yemo hospital.

They are discussing the health of their father, Noel Kalouda, who contracted coronavirus weeks before, and is now lying in a hospital bed, breathing through an oxygen mask.

Despite the brothers’ medical knowledge, and vaccines being available to them in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), all three men had chosen not to get vaccinated because of fears over potential side-effects of the only jab available, the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“On social media, there was a story about a guy who died 20 hours after getting vaccinated. Things like this make me scared to get the vaccine,” said Nduku.

Just over 86,000 doses have been administered – enough to vaccinate under 0.1% of the country’s population of 90 million.

Already facing shortages and huge logistical challenges in getting vaccines out to people in far-flung areas, experts worry that distrust of pharmaceutical products will further undermine the global fight against Covid.

While anger grows over the failures of rich countries to supply enough vaccines to poorer ones, vaccine hesitancy of citizens has been overlooked, epidemiologists warn.

Mimi Henriette Mishika takes an AstraZeneca vial out of cold storage to begin the first vaccinations of the day at Kinshasa’s Clinique Ngaliema.
Mimi Henriette Mishika takes an AstraZeneca vial out of cold storage to begin the first vaccinations of the day at Kinshasa’s Clinique Ngaliema. Photograph: Lisa Murray

Prof Pascal Lutumba, of the University of Kinshasa’s department of infectious diseases, said: “If people in Congo remain unvaccinated, the South African variant could meet with the Delta variant and the virus could mutate into a variant that is resistant to some vaccines.

“If a Congo variant arrives in a country like the UK, which has high vaccination rates, it could put them back into the same position they were at the beginning of the pandemic. They’d have to get vaccinated again with a new vaccine,” Lutumba said.

“We would be back to square one,” said Dr William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University medical centre in Nashville, US.

Félix Tshisekedi, DRC president
Félix Tshisekedi, DRC president, admitted he had not yet had the vaccine. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/EPA

The Delta variant represents up to 79% of infections sequenced in DRC, according to figures released by the World Health Organization last month.

The country had officially recorded 50,529 cases and 1,045 Covid-related deaths by 4 August, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, but the virus has torn through the DRC’s elite. In May the vice-president of the Congolese national assembly said the pandemic had killed as many as 32 MPs – about 5% of the total.

Setting the tone for vaccine scepticism, the DRC’s president, Félix Tshisekedi, admitted last month he had not yet had the vaccine.

“We were ready to launch the vaccination campaign. The day before, I saw this [misleading] information on television first and then in social networks,” Tshisekedi told journalists.

The DRC has only received AstraZeneca vaccines so far, but according to Dr Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, the country’s head of Covid response, new vaccines are expected to arrive this month, which should include different brands – which both Muyembe-Tamfum and the president have said they will take.

Nduku said: “The president said that he doesn’t trust AstraZeneca, so that makes me doubt it … I would die of anxiety if I took this vaccine, because of how the president described it. I would be worried that I was going to die.”

On 2 March DRC received 1.7m doses from Covax, the global vaccine-sharing scheme, but delayed the rollout until April after several European countries suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in response to reports of side-effects involving rare blood clots. About 75% of the shots were relocated to other African countries to be used before they expired. Since then the rollout has been sluggish.

Airport workers in Ghana load a lorry with 350,000 AstraZeneca doses in May
Airport workers in Ghana load a lorry with 350,000 AstraZeneca doses in May, redeployed from the DRC amid low vaccine uptake there. Photograph: Francis Kokoroko/Reuters

Delivering vaccines across a vast, forested country divided by large rivers and with poor infrastructure is a challenge in itself. The DRC is almost the size of western Europe yet has under 2,000 miles (3,000km) of paved roads, less than 1% of the total in the UK.

Willingness to have a Covid vaccine in the DRC was reported to be the lowest in 15 countries surveyed by the African Union between August and December last year, with 38% of people surveyed in the DRC unwilling to be vaccinated compared with just 4% in Ethiopia.

More than 70% of healthcare workers in the country said they would not take the vaccine, according to a study published by Vaccines journal in February.

The failure over healthcare messaging historically has had catastrophic consequences here. An Ebola outbreak in the eastern DRC in 2018 killed more than 2,200 people as international aid agencies and health authorities failed to communicate effectively with people and communities, to properly train health workers and to explain consent in local languages, according to the World Bank.

two men walk past Clinique Ngaliema in Kinshasa.
Clinique Ngaliema in Kinshasa. Despite the vaccine being freely available at the public hospital, even most DRC healthcare workers refuse to get a jab. Photograph: Lisa Murray

Healthcare workers who spoke to the Guardian in Kinshasa said these mistakes had been repeated with Covid as the government has failed to adequately explain the severity of the virus, allowing disinformation to spread.

“People were getting all sorts of messages from the churches – for example, that Covid was created to finish off Africans. The small churches were spreading many messages that Covid was not real, said Dr Cris Kacita Osako, an epidemiologist who worked on the government’s Covid response last year.

Meanwhile, as they hope for their father’s recovery, Nduku and his brother are torn. “People didn’t believe it,” said a doctor at the hospital, Jean-Paul Nsimba. “They resisted, they doubted its existence. They thought it was a disease that killed white people.”

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[Ticker] US to lift Covid travel-ban on EU tourists

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Fully vaccinated travellers from the EU and the UK will be let back into the US from “early November” onward, the White House said on Monday, ending an 18-month ban and prompting airline firms’ shares to climb. “This new international travel system follows the science to keep Americans … safe,” a US spokesman said. The EU recently recommended increased restrictions on US visitors, amid anger at lack of US reciprocity.

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Ten women and girls killed every day in Mexico, Amnesty report says | Global development

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At least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, according to a new report that says victims’ families are often left to carry out their own homicide investigations.

The scathing report, released on Monday by Amnesty International, documents both the scale of the violence and the disturbing lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities to prevent or solve the murders.

“Mexico is continuing to fail to fulfil its duty to investigate and, therefore, its duty to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of the victims as well as to prevent violence against women,” says the report, Justice on Trial.

“Feminicidal violence and the failings in investigation and prevention in northern Mexico are not anecdotal, but rather form part of a broader reality in the country,” the report adds.

Femicide has been rife in Mexico for decades – most notoriously in an epidemic of murders which claimed the life of some 400 women in the border city Ciudad Juárez during the 1990s. In recent years, a growing feminist movement has held massive street protests against the violence, but authorities have proved unwilling to take action to stop the killing.

“It’s always a question of political will,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s activist in the state of Querétaro.

Ocampo has been part of teams lobbying state governors to issue an alert when femicides reach scandalously high levels – a move to raise awareness and mobilise resources. But officials often resist such moves, she said, as governors worry about their states’ images and investment.

“They refuse to recognise there is a problem,” she said.

The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also downplayed the problem. He branded the women protesting on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as “conservatives” and alleged a dark hand manipulating the demonstrations.

When asked last year about rising violence against women, he responded, “Tell all the women of Mexico that they are protected and represented, that we’re doing everything possible to guarantee peace and quiet and that I understand that our adversaries are looking for ways to confront us.”

Mexico recorded the murders of 3,723 women in 2020. Some 940 of those murders were investigated as femicides.

The Amnesty report focused on Mexico state, a vast collection of gritty suburbs surrounding Mexico City on three sides. It has become notorious for femicides over the past decade – and for the way the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former Mexico state governor, ignored the problem.

The report found cases of families carrying out their own detective work, which were ignored by investigators. In many cases, authorities contaminated crime scenes or mishandled evidence. They often did not even pursue leads such as geolocation information from victims’ mobile phones.

In the case of Julia Sosa, whose children believe she was killed by her partner, two daughters found her body buried on the suspect’s property – but had to wait hours for police to arrive and process the crime scene. One of her daughters recalled the subsequent interview process, in which “the police officer was falling asleep”.

Sosa’s partner hanged himself, prompting police to close the case, even though family members said there were more leads to pursue.

In states rife with drug cartel violence, activists say cases of femicides go uninvestigated as impunity is commonplace.

“The authorities say it’s organised crime and that’s it,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero. “Many of these aggressors find protection under the excuse of organised crime.”

The persistence of femicides is a stark contrast to recent gains by the women’s movement in Mexico. The country’s supreme court decriminalised abortion earlier this month. A new congress recently sworn in has gender parity and seven female governors will be installed by the end of year – up from just two before last June’s election’s

The decriminalisation of abortion “let off some steam” from the pressure driving the protests “because part of the demands was over the right to choose,” Ocampo said. “But when it comes to violence, we still see it everywhere.”

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US official urges EU to speed up enlargement

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Gabriel Escobar, the US’ newly-appointed acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, has urged Europe to speed up Western Balkans enlargement. “To return 20 years later and see that there hasn’t been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” he told the RFE/RL news agency Friday, referring to his last post in Europe in 2001. “We would like to see a more rapid integration,” he said.

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