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Key findings
  • In the five surveyed countries in West Africa, most citizens – 92% on average – say they are “somewhat well informed” or “very well informed” about the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to combat it.
  • While about two in 100 respondents say they or a member of their household became ill with COVID-19, 14 times as many (28%) report that a household member lost a job, a business, or other primary source of income due to the pandemic.
  • Only three in 10 respondents (31%) say they trust their government “somewhat” or “a lot” to ensure that any vaccine is safe before it is offered to citizens. Mistrust is particularly high in Senegal (83%) and Liberia (78%).
  • Six in 10 citizens (60%), on average, say they are unlikely to try to get vaccinated, including 44% who consider it “highly unlikely.” Senegalese (79%) and Liberians (66%) are most likely to express a reluctance to take the vaccine.
  • Vaccine hesitancy/resistance skyrockets alongside doubts about the government’s ability to ensure that vaccines are safe. Those who fully trust their government on this score are five to 10 times as likely to want the vaccine as those who don’t trust it.
  • Large majorities in Niger (89%), Liberia (86%), and Senegal (71%) believe that prayer is more effective than a vaccine in preventing coronavirus infection. Views are more divided in Benin (41%) and Togo (40%).
  • Poor respondents express a greater reluctance to get vaccinated than their betteroff counterparts.
  • Looking ahead, only a small minority (20%) of citizens in these West African countries think that COVID-19 will be a serious problem for their country over the next six months. But unlike trust in the government, the expected severity of the pandemic does not appear to be a decisive factor in people’s willingness to be vaccinated.

Although Africa has so far been spared the massive COVID-19 death tolls experienced in some other regions, health officials are urgently advising African leaders to launch mass vaccination campaigns (France24, 2021). The World Health Organization (WHO, 2021a) reports that countries are indeed “revving up” to roll out vaccines in the face of recent surges in coronavirus infections, including faster-spreading new variants.

The Africa CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that at least 60% of the continent’s population needs to be vaccinated to create community immunity that will protect Africans – and by extension help protect the rest of the world as well (Anna, 2020). That’s an enormously complex and expensive undertaking, but less expensive and difficult than continuing or repeating the economic, educational, and social shutdowns that have helped protect the population until now (Lancet, 2020).

Africa has trailed other regions in receiving vaccines, but rollouts are gathering speed with shipments to a growing number of countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa, Angola, and Zimbabwe (Petesch, 2021; BBC News, 2021a; CNN, 2021; Kyobutungi, 2021; WHO, 2021b). The COVAX initiative for equitable global access to COVID- 19 vaccines and the African Union are working to secure and deliver hundreds of millions of doses to the continent in coming months (WHO, 2021c; Jerving, 2021).

Among the multitude of challenges of vaccinating a population – from funding and fair access to the global vaccine market to the logistical difficulties of transporting, storing, and administering vaccines (Edward-Ekpu, 2021; DW, 2021) – not the least is vaccine hesitancy and resistance. Fueled by mistrust of the health-care system and political institutions, popular reluctance to be vaccinated is a growing problem worldwide; in 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic – the WHO (2019) identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats.

A recent survey led by the Africa CDC (2020) found that four out of five respondents (79%) in 15 African countries said they would take a COVID-19 vaccine. The study blamed hesitancy on doubts about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and misinformation about COVID- 19, such as that it isn’t real, doesn’t pose a serious threat, or can be cured by safer alternative treatments. Another study in 19 countries around the globe, including South Africa and Nigeria, reported that about 72% said they would be likely to get vaccinated against COVID-19 (Lazarus et al., 2020).

But Afrobarometer’s nationally representative surveys in five West African countries (Benin, Liberia, Niger, Senegal, and Togo) offer less optimistic findings: On average, only four in 10 people say they would be likely to try to get vaccinated, including just one in three Liberians and one in five Senegalese. Most say they don’t trust their government to ensure that the vaccines are safe.

Aminatou Seydou

Aminatou Seydou is a researcher.