Like in other areas across the country, residents of Nachiola Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chimutu in Lilongwe, are divided on Covid vaccines.
Arnold Phiri, 20, says he was until recently monitoring the situation before he could make up his mind to get the jab.
“I have heard a lot of stories about the vaccine. I have been observing those who already got vaccinated and I am convinced to go and have my shot,” Phiri says.
His position mirrors those of several others who have been undecided on the vaccines and wanted to see first if those who already got theirs could be harmed in any way.
This is despite that experts have persistently advanced that idea that the inoculations are safe for human use, having passed all the essential tests.
The Presidential Taskforce on Covid acknowledges that some sections of society are unwilling to get jabbed due to beliefs, myths and misconceptions.
This has led to low uptake of the vaccines, described by the World Health Organisation as counteragents built to save lives.
However, in spite of the national average low uptake, at Chiwamba in T/A Chimutu, the story is gradually changing due to the work of personnel at a health centre bearing the area’s name, who are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to ensure every eligible person gets inoculated.
“I was vaccinated because I wanted to be safe; I was told about the deadliness of the disease. I was told I would be safer from Covid if I got the vaccine,” says 25-year-old Emilida Bodimasi from Nachiola II Village, T/A Chimutu.
Another resident of the area, Letia Tembo, says her own experience of the shot made her realise the so-called side-effects were familiar ones.
After receiving the vaccine at Chiwamba Health Centre, Tembo says, she felt a slight pain in her arm which is not different from what she felt when receiving other injections before.
From 2020, Oxfam Malawi has been working in four T/As in Lilongwe Rural to improve uptake of Covid vaccines among eligible community members.
Apart from Chimutu, the other T/As are Tsabango, Njewa and M’bwatalika.
The intervention has been credited for a sharp rise in the number of people queuing up for the vaccines at Chiwamba Health Centre and wherever healthcare personnel take the jabs to.
As Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) go around the facility’s catchment area with vaccine messages, the numbers of locals turning up for the jobs are also rising.
One of the HSAs, Reuben Kam’madzi, says meetings with local leaders such as chiefs have eased the work of healthcare personnel as they go about with Covid and vaccine messages.
“The long distance to the health centre also deflated some people wishing to get vaccinated. But we have addressed this concern by going right into the communities to administer the vaccines,” Kam’madzi says.
At the time of our visit, he disclosed that in the area that he oversees, out of 2,560 people, 1,300 had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
The single-dose AstraZeneca and double-dose Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being administered in Malawi after being approved by the Ministry of Health.
“I urge my fellow HSAs in other parts of the country to intensify efforts of encouraging more people to get vaccinated,” Kam’madzi says.
Patience Ganunga, who is in charge of Chiwamba Health Centre, reckons that most people were not willing to receive Covid vaccines at first.
She now marvels at what she terms as tremendous improvement in people accessing the jabs.
“The false stories about the vaccine scared people. Some even thought they would die after getting the shots. In recent months, however, we have seen a rise in the number of people coming for the vaccines,” Ganunga says.
Chiwamba Health Centre’s catchment area of 59,350 is being reached by 24 HSAs with support from Oxfam through the Covax Project.
“Some people stay as far away from the health centre as 22 kilometres. We have reached them with the vaccines and the correct message about them,” she says.
Local leaders have also led, in their own right, the campaign for vaccine acceptance by, among other actions, getting the jabs publicly.
In a recent update on the Covid situation in the country, Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda dispelled myths that the inoculations interfere with people’s biological makeup.
“Breastfeeding mothers can also get the vaccine and continue to breastfeed their children safely… Let me inform the public that Covid vaccines do not interfere with a person’s hormones; hence the vaccine does not affect the fertility of a person,” Chiponda said.
About the interventions in the four T/As, Oxfam Malawi programmes manager, Dilly Mwenda, says the charity will put in place measures of sustaining and scaling up the fight against the pandemic.
Mwenda is content that the initiative has even propelled vulnerable populations such as the elderly and those with disabilities to get the jabs in their backyards.
“As means of scaling up the initiatives, Oxfam wishes to do more, seeing that there is a great need in the communities to decrease risk perceptions about Covid among the people who are still reluctant to take the vaccine,” Mwenda says.