Monkey business Nigerian style

To say I was stunned at the carnage caused by the “vaccination that gives monkey pox” debacle in Nigeria recently is an understatement. Not even our salt water bath for ebola episode prepared me for this. But as a communication person also involved in heath communication I had to dig deeper into this. People’s opinions pushed as fact just didn’t answer my questions.

The story was that the Nigerian Army Medical corps was doing a round of forceful vaccinations in schools in the South East of Nigeria without parents’ consent and that as a result pupils were dead and teachers shot. Another layer was that the vaccines where actually a deadly monkey pox shot meant to kill children. Within a few hours panicked parents were removing kids from schools. Mayhem is a mild term. Who can blame them? Not me.

I considered the following

1. There is a structure in Nigeria for vaccinations. No one can randomly turn up to vaccinate anyone without consent let alone children

2. There is no vaccination for monkey pox

3. The Nigeria army does medical outreaches and other softer engagements as part of its exercises now and several have held in the South East this year. One held in my state, Cross River, as well. They have also in some communities given kids chocolates, biscuits and deworming tablets. Pretty much standard fare for these things. No word about vaccinations. I know this because I read the press about the various Army animal dances and smiles.

After dust of October 11, 2017 settled the following was established

1. It was not a vaccination exercise

2. It was not in a school or targeted at school children

3. It was a medical outreach on the lawn of a Catholic church in a community in Ozubulu that citizens went to voluntarily. Free eye checks, free glasses, other checks, dentistry services and other services where available. The community was mobilized via the traditional, religious and LG structure. The medical outreach is part of the military exercise and that information is given to the states before it even begins.

4. Military exercises are now done with medical outreaches and other soft activities as part of them.

6. The community mobilized was calmer than the chaos across 5 or 6 states.

Army python dance medical outreach in Ahiara, Mbaise in Imo state — September 2017 source AIT.

So should the Nigerian Army have done a medical outreach at this time considering the tension after the Python Dance face off with Kanu? Well apparently this is the 5TH medical outreach held in the SE and the first was launched on the 18th of September 2017 after the faceoff and all have been surprisingly well attended with between 1,000 to 2,000 recipients in each community. One each so far in Imo, Enugu, Abia and Ebonyi State. Considering that the equivalent exercise in the Cross River communities had 3000 recipients I will give credit to the outreach community mobilization teams. It takes a lot of skill and diligence have gotten such participation from any community considering the existing tensions in the region.

So what went wrong with this particular exercise? The chaos occurred in places and states where nothing was happening. This means that to do one community outreach in 1 state 6 states must be sensitized. At first I was confused by the State government’s press release but I get it now. The state did not approve any vaccination in schools because there was no such thing.

My opinion (MY OPINION) is a few people were extremely unhappy that the Nigerian Army did several successful medical outreaches starting barely 2 weeks after the IPOB face off. Said people may have been furious that people turned up in good numbers for whatever medical intervention was offered by their “enemies”, the Nigerian zoological army (ironically quite fond of animal names) instead of rejecting it in solidarity. I did notice statements from a few individuals on social media on how there has never been any army medical outreach in the south east and how they do not need any. Disconnect borne of a lot of privilege is a real thing. The people who attended them do not agree. I haven’t attended any of course but am not unfamiliar with using military medical facillities. For years in Calabar back in the day my dental service provider was a Navy Dental Center. Military medical facilities at state level are open to the public.

I can understand rumours and distortion as they spread. This was very different. This was group of humans deliberately crafting and spreading highly detailed tales about children falling dead when injected, teachers shot in schools, Hausa soldiers(to be specific) dragging out children and forcefully injecting them and they created and shared these detailed messages KNOWING fully well that this would cause a stampede and great emotional distress. It doesn’t matter how exposed or educated one is. If I had a kid in the region I would panic. People who did this either do not have ONE child in Nigeria or had made sure they didn’t go to school that day. It is a miracle that no child was trampled or run over in the resulting frenzy.

Social media is powerful. Very very powerful. Propaganda also has many unintended outcomes. I did not find the frenzy in any way amusing and found the few jokes and taunts I read quite unfunny. I felt as unamused when the polio vaccine rejection as a result of the botched Pfizer trials in the North was roundly mocked by most Nigerians. My lack of amusement is mainly because this will have intended and unintended consequences and none good. Whoever developed those messages will not stop with this resounding success. The outreaches which had an unexpectedly great turnout will now stop. Some of the opinions shared will ascend to our great pantheon of “facts”.

The goal of a behaviour targeted information drive is to make people do something. So I repeat this was a successful one. It also put children and parents in danger from a variety of accidents. Whether it used lies, perception, history and existing tension does not take away from its horribly effective virality.

Thanks to a few “creative” whatsapp messages riding on existing mistrust, routine immunization and healthcare outreaches from ANYONE may be a gargantuan feat in the region if the government at all levels does not step up its communication soon. Health interventions are a very effective propaganda lever as it’s a very trust based and thus emotive. All stakeholders step up. Stop expecting levels of rational thought that even you cannot achieve. Humans are not largely rational beings. It is what it is so plan for this reality. As an individual not directly affected try not to be a conduit for mad people on social media and whatsapp. There are many.

Pamela Braide

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