On December 2, 2022, the Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, issued new COVID-19 rules. Museveni said no one would be allowed to enter public places without an up-to-date vaccination certificate. The COVID-19 certificate must show that the holder has gotten two doses and a booster of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The government’s decision is coming at a time when Uganda is fighting the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). Forced vaccination measures reduce citizens’ confidence and trust in the government’s approaches to dealing with health emergencies. Mandatory vaccination measures can also breed chaos between citizens who disagree and those enforcing them. Instead of forcing vaccination on Ugandans, Museveni should work with local community leaders to drive an effective vaccination. The government can also partner with private organizations to incentivize COVID-19 vaccination.
About 60 percent of the Ugandan population 18 years and above have received at least two vaccine doses. However, only 6 percent of children aged 12-17 have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Museveni said the current vaccination coverage still falls short of the country’s target of 28.5m eligible Ugandans (22 million adults and 6.5 million children). The president’s desire to vaccinate more people is plausible, but his approach is faulty. Forcing vaccination on Ugandans has more cons than benefits. Here are some recommendations on how Museveni can get more Ugandans vaccinated without taking away their rights and privileges.
An effective way to get more people to take the vaccine remains advocacy. The advocacy needs to target the groups of people that have the lowest vaccination rates. For instance, 12-17 are more likely to be secondary students in Uganda. For that category of people, there could be intensive advocacies in secondary schools. Each school’s vaccination advocacy team should comprise a few vaccinated student leaders and teachers. The advocacies should focus on educating students on the need to get vaccinated. The student leaders on the advocacy team should answer their colleagues’ questions to help clear their doubts. The ministry of health should work with school principals in Uganda to monitor progress and review feedback from the exercise to make the campaign effective.
The government could partner with private and corporate bodies to incentivize the vaccination drive. Every week, schools that lead the chart of effective vaccination advocacies, evidenced by new COVID-19 vaccine uptakes, could be awarded a prize and the label of the ‘COVID-19 Vaccine Champion of the Week’. The award would encourage teachers and students to intensify efforts. At the same time, schools that experience particular challenges in their advocacy could relay these challenges to the national coordinating team for assessment, assistance, and resolution. Depending on how much support the government gets from its partners, students who willingly take the COVID-19 vaccines during the drive could also get some ‘thank you’ gifts. The gifts could be as small as a pen, notebook, and chocolate bar.
The approach above would get schoolchildren interested in taking the vaccine. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not these children should take the vaccine lies with their parents or guardians. Children under 18 years need parental/guardian consent to receive the vaccine. Hence, the government’s advocacy against vaccine hesitancy must extend beyond children to their parents or guardians. Community-based advocacies that target the bursting of myths and wrong perceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines must take center stage at the grassroots. These advocacies must emphasize the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines against COVID-19.
Recent events in China show that forceful COVID-19 measures can lead to chaos and no progress. The Ugandan government must dump policies that do not leave the decision to take the COVID-19 vaccines in the hands of citizens. The resistance that greeted the ‘jail or fine’ policy for anti-vaxxers in Uganda last February shows that forceful vaccination will not work. Hence, there is no need to go that route again. So far, Uganda has experienced 7 Ebola outbreaks. Now, candidate EVD vaccines have arrived in the country for a clinical trial. The government cannot afford to build distrust amongst citizens with a forceful COVID-19 vaccination drive.
Mandatory vaccination is a bad idea. Citizens lose trust in the government’s capacity to respond to health emergencies when forced to take vaccines. Ultimately, mandatory vaccination leads to vaccine hesitancy among citizens. President Museveni must understand that if COVID-19 vaccination uptake increases without force, there is a big chance that the EVD vaccination drive will succeed when it finally takes off. Effective advocacies that educate Ugandans on why they should take the COVID-19 vaccines are the way to go.
David Adetula is a writing fellow at African Liberty.