The message is seemingly simple: COVID-19 vaccines significantly reduce the risk of severe illness and death. They slow down infection rates and ease the stress on our healthcare systems. Public health professionals are confident that vaccines are our best chance to end this pandemic’s hold on our lives.
But getting this message across is much more complex. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are rife, increasing fears and reducing public trust. This can be even more detrimental in communities without sufficient access to accurate information and medical professionals. Even when sufficient vaccines arrive, there is an urgent need to clarify for all that the vaccine is not only safe, but lifesaving. Communicating this is crucial to successful vaccine rollouts in communities in many lower-income countries. Especially in these global south locations, while media sources, from newspapers to television to radio to social networks, are important, one strategy will succeed above all others: community engagement.
I recently spent two weeks in Eswatini, a small southern African country, as part of IsraAID’s global work to support COVID-19 response efforts. I was fortunate to join conversations with key leaders from government, from the traditional chiefdom structure, and from health-based initiatives, many of which were launched to respond to the country’s HIV crisis.
During our last few days in Eswatini, we attended the official launch of their vaccination campaign. I stood with the Minister of Health immediately after she received her first jab of AstraZeneca. We talked about how emotional it is to receive the vaccination, the immense relief we felt knowing we were protecting ourselves and others. She called her experience and our visit “an injection of hope.” The challenge will be to ensure every citizen of Eswatini has access to this moment as well.
As a communications specialist, much of my focus turned to media and messaging. I helped facilitate a workshop for representatives of non-governmental and governmental organizations, including the ministry of health, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF, among others, to discuss the what and the how of COVID-19 vaccine messaging. I met with journalists, radio broadcasters, photographers, pastors, and local business owners. Yet what became clear is that tapping into existing community networks is just as critical as news appearances and meme-making – if not more so.
I was impressed by how many different mechanisms of community organization exist in Eswatini: faith-based, clan-based, region-based, and village-based. For example, we spoke at length with the local chief of Ezulwini district, who is also the attorney general of Eswatini. He explained his commitment to his people, and how he can work within his chiefdom to take care of his community and ensure they get the right message. He told us that he became a lawyer well before he became a chief, but that both were a calling for him to serve his nation and his people.
We heard from the senior team planning the vaccination campaign about how they are prioritizing non-professional community health workers in the first phase of vaccination alongside doctors, nurses, and other hospital workers. These leaders have been on the frontline of public health for more than a decade, conducting regular outreach efforts within rural communities to ensure they know how to get tested for HIV, where to get free condoms, and, now, why getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is so critical. These public health promoters have been key in helping the country get a high proportion of the HIV-positive population on anti-retroviral therapies. Prioritizing them and recognizing their role as critical healthcare workers on the frontline is a bold and clear call to action for community leadership.
Telling people to get vaccinated is not enough. People must have access to tangible, accurate, and up-to-date information so that they can make informed decisions. While billboards and push notifications can help, the real key is to tap into the networks that bring people together, the pastors, the chiefdoms, and the community workers, who have the access and relationships to have open, honest conversations, respond to concerns, and clarify that until everyone is vaccinated, this won’t be over.
These types of networks exist the world over. I see them in every community I visit with IsraAID, from asylum seekers in Greece to hurricane-affected villages in Puerto Rico. They are critical to our global vaccination efforts and to the post-pandemic future we are trying to build.