“The world became confused when the pandemic came, and we as refugees were also confused,” says Laban Chang Ndoh, one of over 72,000 Cameroonian refugees living in Nigeria after fleeing conflict between secessionist forces and the army since 2017.
“So many people had so many opinions about it.”
Laban is the President of the Great Step Initiative (GSI), a community-based organization that provides mental health services to refugees in five districts of Nigeria’s Cross River State.
In 2020, as COVID-19 spread, their network of 120 volunteers swung into action to fight the misinformation that followed in its wake.
“They had a lot of questions!” Laban remembers. At first, their efforts mostly entailed convincing people of the genuine threat posed by the virus and the need for preventive measures such as mask-wearing and handwashing.
Last year GSI was one of seven refugee-led organizations recognized for their role in responding to the pandemic in UNHCR’s 2020 NGO Innovation Awards.
“Some were spreading rumours that the vaccine was a death sentence.”
While the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines last year raised hopes of a way out of the pandemic, it also brought fresh waves of rumour and myth.
“We did not know much about [the vaccine] in the beginning”, explains Laban, who recounts some of the wild theories that began circulating in the absence of credible information.
“Some were spreading rumours that the vaccine was a death sentence,” he says. “Some say you die after 24 [or] 36 months, others had heard of microchips in the vaccine that would connect the person with Lucifer, dooming him or her to hell.”
Seeing the need to counter such myths, Laban and his fellow GSI volunteers received guidance and verified information on the vaccine from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to help them fight misinformation and answer the many questions people had.
When it comes to countering general skepticism around the vaccine, Laban has seen results by employing two basic arguments.
“The world would not rely on it if it was something that eliminated humanity in 36 months,” he says, as well as pointing to the simple fact that many have already received the vaccine without incident.
The volunteers have used other tactics to fight more specific myths – for example that vaccines are unnecessary because the virus is “a European thing that only occurs in a cold climate.”
They share statistics from the National Centre for Disease Control showing that people in Nigeria have not only become infected, but also died from COVID-19.
Their efforts have seen tangible results among Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria, despite the limited availability of doses that have kept vaccination rates low, in line with many other low- and middle-income refugee host countries. Over 1,800 refugees have received one shot in Benue, Cross River and Taraba States, in addition to around 700 who have received two doses.
Armed with his data and arguments, Laban goes from door to door in the Adagom refugee settlements striking up conversations and making his case. Despite their efforts, however, there is still much work to be done.
At the market in the settlement, he meets Effemi Blessing who runs a small grocery store that she established with her family with financial support from UNHCR through its partner CUSO
. “I am strong,” she tells Laban, “and I have never been vaccinated, so I am a bit afraid [to take it].
” Laban takes the time to listen to her concerns and carefully explain the safety of the vaccine in the hope of changing one more mind.
“Everybody around me was afraid.”
Perhaps the most effective tool at their disposal, however, is the fact that the GSI volunteers are drawn from the communities they serve – both Cameroonian refugees and local Nigerians – meaning they are familiar and trusted figures who understand their audience.
One such volunteer is 65-year-old Asu Ben Abang, a Cameroonian father of seven who represents GSI in Community 33, a section of Adagom settlement.
He uses himself as a living example of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, which has helped to convince his own extended family members and others in the community.
“Everybody around me was afraid. Only me, I took the vaccine,” he says, proudly showing his green vaccination card. “Now that they saw that I did not die, my relatives will take the shot.”