By Job Osazuwa
The COVID-19 pandemic, which broke out in late 2019, has dealt the world devastating blows. Advanced countries that boasted of sophisticated health care facilities and abundant manpower were humbled.
The unhealthy breeze swept many countries completely off their feet, even as they were seen running helter-skelter in search of quick and lasting solutions to end the scourge.
While medical experts, including scientists, were busy with research, the death toll rose uncontrollably across the globe. Hospitals and health workers were overwhelmed. Fears and worries ran riot on the streets.
However, the World Health Organisation (WHO), governments of nations, pharmaceutical companies and other stakeholders did not relent in the search for a vaccine. Billions of dollars were voted for vaccine research. The people waited and prayed for a breakthrough. At last, vaccines were discovered, tried and approved.
The jubilation that followed the discovery of vaccines to tackle the viral communicable disease was not out of place. Though there was skepticism over the safety of the vaccine on humans, it was later embraced after conscious and consistent education.
Millions of doses were rolled out from country to country to ensure that citizens were inoculated against the ravaging virus. In fact, it was made compulsory in some countries that every citizen must take the shots or face certain consequences.
In all of this, there was a big setback in Africa, particularly Nigeria. The number of people who have taken the first shot remains abysmal. The Federal Government recently tried to explain why eight states were yet to get the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Many Nigerians, educated and uneducated, for one reason or the other, are yet to accept the vaccines even when they have unhindered access to taking the shots. Fear of the unknown, ignorance and uninformed submissions about the vaccines have led to many people rejecting it outrightly.
Experts and other concerned Nigerians have repeatedly called for authorities to intensify awareness on the benefits of the vaccines. There are also calls for free access, including the vulnerable, to the vaccines.
Perturbed by this unpalatable development, the Nigerian Solidarity Support Fund (NSSF), in partnership with Global Citizen, has embarked on distribution of one million doses to bridge the gap.
Experts across the world have unanimously voted for massive vaccination, tipping it as one of the easiest, safest and cheapest ways of stopping further spread of the virus.
Upscaling the crusade to get more people vaccinated, the general manager of NSSF, Dr. Fejiro Chinye-Nwoko, told Daily Sun that the benefits of taking the COVID-19 vaccines cannot be over-emphasized. As a medical practitioner, she said no Nigerian, irrespective of status or location, should be left behind in the vaccination exercise. She stressed that, when more people are not vaccinated, it is capable of jeopardizing the goal of halting further spread of the infection.
According to her, continuous and widespread vaccination is key in taming the disease, which has claimed millions of lives. She also believes, with proper and adequate interventions by different stakeholders, the economic recovery process would be faster than anyone could envisage.
Explaining her organisation’s move to get one million vulnerable Nigerians covered, she said: “NSSF is an NGO established in 2020 as a partnership between Global Citizen and Nigerian Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA). NSSF was established to be a resource organisation and the main reason was to mitigate against the adverse effects of COVID-19 on Nigerians. We saw that the pandemic had come and was raging. So, NSSF decided to solve the post impact of COVID-19 on the health and economic sectors of Nigeria.
“We came up with three main objectives. The first was to assist vulnerable populations in Nigeria, while the second is to strengthen the health system, having been the worst hit of all the sectors affected.
“Our third objective was to reskill the youths to help them regain economic stability in the post-COVID-19 world. We know that, during the COVID-19 lockdown, a lot of people lost their means of livelihood.
“Seeing that the pandemic is going on for too long and there is a third wave, we decided to also join forces to address the current pandemic.
“There are several ways to end the pandemic. One way is to prevent the spread, which the government tried to do with the lockdown and we saw what happened in Nigeria. That was not the most effective way of stopping the pandemic. The second way is to address COVID-19 in terms of case management, building ICUs, isolation centres and getting oxygen to people. But that is also further depleting our resources because there’s just so much the health system can do with our population and limited resources.
“And the third is preventing this pandemic by vaccinating everyone. So, NSSF has moved to the third, which is vaccination, and we decided that we are going to assist in vaccinating one million Nigerians; of course it has to be the most vulnerable Nigerians that will otherwise not be vaccinated. And we have two approaches for it. The first is to collaborate with partner organisations to purchase more vaccines and the second is to solve the vaccine hesitancy in Nigeria.
“We know that, with the availability of the vaccine, a lot of people are still not willing to accept it or they don’t know the benefits yet. They are a bit reluctant to take the vaccine. So, we are going to be doing advocacy so that we can eliminate this pandemic once and for all.”
To solve the vaccine hesitancy problem, she said that NSSF was reskilling the youths and helping to reduce vaccine hesitancy through a youth-focused campaign, using artistic expressions and readily available digital tools.
Shedding light on how the one million people will be vaccinated, Chinye-Nwoko stated that NSSF was created to add to what the Federal Government was doing. She said the NGO would get more vaccines and work on reducing vaccine hesitancy.
“We are going to be working with government, especially the Federal Government. We are already in conversation with the National Primary Health Care Development Agency and they’ve done a fantastic job in terms of storage and distribution to the 36 states. In terms of procurement, we will work with the Federal Government in bringing in these one million doses.
“Getting the doses doesn’t only protect them, it also protects vulnerable populations who are the elderly and others in terms of getting adverse effects of COVID-19. Death is the last spectrum; there are several adverse effects like permanent lung damage that a lot of clinicians are noticing with COVID-19 infections. So, even after people have recovered, they still have lung damage that may leads to other lung diseases in the future. Some persons argue that they don’t want the vaccine because their immunity is strong, what of other people whose immunity isn’t that strong?
“The vaccinations also provide immunity for children who are now vulnerable during this third wave. That’s why we say herd immunity is key. When we get about 80-90 per cent of the population vaccinated, the remaining 10 or 20 per cent who are skeptical are protected by those already vaccinated. But right now, we are at 1 per cent.
“The second benefit is that we know that the virus has mutated over time, now we have another variant, tomorrow we may have another variant, if we don’t curb the virus now. So, if we don’t get vaccinated, there will be another variant that will be more virulent. For example, we have mosquitoes that have mutated that don’t respond to either the insecticides or antimalarials that we are using.
“So, the same thing, if we don’t curb the virus that has come in now, it will get to a point where there will be so many variants that might go beyond our control. The earlier we get vaccinated, the better. At the end of the day, the truth is that the vaccine will stop the COVID-19 from spreading to a monster that we can’t cope with. It is better we just prevent this pandemic from growing into something else.
“What we have decided is to work with government and target the states and communities that have low uptake, access to health care delivery and vulnerable people. We know that in the first vaccination that happened in Nigeria, some people didn’t even have primary health care centres in their communities. They’ll have to take transport to another community to get vaccinated and that’s a barrier to vaccination,” the expert said.
Chinye-Nwoko clarified that when people die even after taking the vaccine, one must not hastily jump to conclusions that the vaccine is ineffective. According to her, if 10 people take vaccines and two of the number still die from COVID-19, there is need to evaluate the cause of death.
“We need to show the population of people dying after taking the vaccine; what they are dying of; is it as a result of COVID-19-related symptoms or other pre-existing symptoms? There is the need to always get the information right,” she said.
She charged journalists to set the agenda for discourse, focusing on why people are scared of taking the vaccines. She said that she has taken two doses without falling dead or developing any complications. Therefore, she asked people to wholeheartedly accept the vaccines.
“Get vaccinated, encourage your colleagues and family members to get vaccinated. COVID-19 is real,” she said.