As Malawi awaits the arrival of Covid-19 vaccine, the daunting task for government and its partners is how to ensure many Malawians get immunised.
The country has had vaccine campaigns and the polio jab recorded an uptake of between 80 and 90 percent.
However, the AstraZeneca vaccine risks being undermined by numerous myths, misconceptions and conspiracy theories from anti-vaxxers.
Vaccine sceptics are making wild claims about Covid-19 vaccine, with some questioning the safety and efficacy of the inoculation as it was developed quickly.
These unscientific claims are going viral on social media, thanks to conspiracy theorists.
It’s not my intention to highlight these lies, falsehoods and “alternative truths” but to underline how anti-vaxxers are going to discredit the Covid-19 vaccines.
The roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine reminds us of similar health communication campaigns, including the resistance to condoms for HIV prevention and the distribution of bed nets to prevent malaria.
Both campaigns faced false claims and resistance from dissenters geared to frustrate the initiatives.
As the government plans to roll out the AstraZeneca vaccine in a few weeks, there is a need for a well-thought-out and well-executed health communication plan to increase the uptake of the vaccine.
The health communication plan needs to have smart objectives, well-defined target audiences and ideal media outlets to convey key messages about the vaccine.
The plan should incorporate creative strategies to encourage Malawians to get the jab and debunk or discredit the baseless conspiracy theories.
The use of influencers could play a critical role in increasing vaccine uptake and assuring the public about its safety and efficacy.
It could be worthwhile to engage key influencers with a large following on social media like prominent musicians or sports celebrities to demystify the conspiracy theories and encourage Malawians to get a dose.
However, the biggest influencers could be President Lazarus Chakwera and Vice-President Saulos Chilima.
The two could be instrumental in enhancing vaccine buy-in by getting jabs live on TV.
Apart from engaging influencers, messaging plays a key role in any awareness campaign and it could be critical to craft key messages on what Malawians need to do.
Furthermore, messaging could assist the Malawi Government to address some key questions about the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but also justify its preference for this vaccine to the other vaccines on the global market.
In view of this, it is imperative the health communication plan should incorporate the theory of planned behaviour which links beliefs to behaviour.
The government’s communication specialists may consider three beliefs that tend to guide human behaviour: behavioural, normative and control.
In this regard, behavioural beliefs produce a favourable or unfavourable attitude towards the behaviour and guide considerations for positive and negative outcomes.
The government needs to inform vaccine sceptics that their behaviour has negative outcomes as it puts their lives and those of their loved ones at risk.
Covid-19 has already claimed millions of lives across the globe and Malawians have not been spared the onslaught of this vicious and deadly pandemic.
The incorporation of this theory could play a critical role in changing the behaviour of Malawian anti-vaxxers sceptical about the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine.
The successful rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine hinges on the uptake of doses but that cannot be guaranteed with widespread myths and conspiracy theories.
Strategic communication is the magic bullet.
Communication can debunk myths, misconceptions and conspiracy theories but at the same time allay fears and assure Malawians of the safety and efficacy of the preferred jab for the country.
When all is said and done, communication is key to the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine.