DR Congo: Parents panic over rumours children will be forcibly vaccinated for Covid-19

Parents came to pick up their children from several schools in Bukavu, thinking that they were going to receive the Covid-19 vaccination.
Parents came to pick up their children from several schools in Bukavu, thinking that they were going to receive the Covid-19 vaccination. © Facebook

Terrified by rumours that children would be forcibly vaccinated against Covid-19, distressed parents rushed to pick up their children from school in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on the morning of February 25. Though the authorities quickly denied any such plan, our Observers say this is just one example of the deep mistrust of the Covid-19 vaccine in the DRC.  

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Disinformation led to complete chaos at several schools in Bukavu. A video, shared with the FRANCE 24 Observers team and posted on Facebook on February 25 shows students and parents running down the hall of the Institute Kasali primary school earlier that same morning:

Our Observer, Dieumerci Mbumba, who lives in Bukavu, shared this video with us. He was walking by the Institute Kasali school the morning of February 25 and witnessed the scene. 

The same chaotic scenes took place in several schools around town, including the Institute Kasali. 

Both the schools and local health officials immediately addressed the rumours, stating that there was no forced vaccination campaign under way, according to Congolese fact-checking website Congo Check. The same day, Doctor Claude Bahizire, who is in charge of communications for the provincial health division, or DPS, said on Mama radio that there were no Covid-19 vaccination campaigns in South Kivu. 

“There was no way to continue with lessons; it was a stampede”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Gilles Kabungulu, a teacher at the Kasali Institute. He described the complete chaos that engulfed the school.

By 8am on Thursday, there were already about a dozen parents gathered at the gates who were demanding to pick up their children. They said that the vaccinators had arrived and would forcibly vaccinate their children against Covid-19. 

We reassured them, saying that there wouldn’t be any vaccinations taking place and that we hadn’t heard anything from the authorities about a Covid-19 vaccine. But around 9 or 10 am, a mass of parents forced open the gate and invaded the school to pick up their children. We had to bring the children out because there was no way to continue with lessons; it was a stampede.

Caption: This video was posted on Facebook by Radio Okapi on February 25.

Kabungulu said that children are never vaccinated at school without their parents’ permission.

 

When there are vaccination campaigns, for example against polio or the measles, we write a note to the parents in the student’s notebook [Editor’s note: In many schools across the French speaking world, each student has a notebook, or a carnet de correspondance, which the teacher and parents use to correspond regarding absences, grades and permissions, among other things]. Only the children whose parents have agreed are vaccinated. The others aren’t.

 

He laments the high level of mistrust of the vaccination.

 

It’s all hearsay. With Covid-19, everyone is afraid. People are particularly afraid of vaccines, they say that they will contaminate them. In school, we tell the children not to be afraid of vaccines.

SUD_KIVU : Panique ce matin à Bukavu suite à une folle rumeur sur le vaccin contre la # Covid19 . Nous sommes à l'école...

Publiée par Tarcis Sangala sur Jeudi 25 février 2021

According to this post from February 25, the panic among parents coincided with the arrival of health workers who were going to teach the children about preventing the spread of Covid-19.

“People are suspicious and fearful of the diseases that we don’t know a lot about, like Ebola or Covid-19”

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Adolphe Nyakasane, who is a pediatrician at the CIRIRI Hospital in Bukavu. He also founded the NGO Kesho Congo, which fights malnutrition, but has also been working to improve health education during the pandemic. He has seen in his work that people are often poorly informed about the dangers of Covid-19:

Here in South Kivu and in the DRC in general, many people don’t think that Covid-19 is a real disease— they think it was manufactured in a laboratory. People are suspicious and fearful of the diseases that we don’t know a lot about, like Ebola or Covid-19. And when there are vaccines for an illness, some people believe that they are actually being used to sterilise women or exterminate all Africans. 

These theories are often spread by charlatans or self-proclaimed pastors. Some of them have bad intentions, while others are just uneducated and misinformed. Some are trying to make money by creating panic.

In 2019, our team investigated the similarly widespread rumours about the fight against Ebola in the DRC. Numerous communications failures by the teams sent in to respond to the crisis, as well as a lack of campaigns to raise awareness about Ebola, sowed further mistrust. The fact that the east of the DRC is mired in conflict also added to the climate of fear and suspicion. 

The NGO Kesho Congo, which focuses on combatting malnutrition, is also working to raise awareness about Covid-19 by handing out masks and teaching people to take precautionary measures like washing their hands. 

The incident in Bukavu occurred just a few days after schools reopened in the DRC on February 22, after being closed for two months in an attempt to control the Covid-19 pandemic. A total of 707 people have died of Covid-19 in the DRC since March 2020. There are now about 109 new cases of the virus reported daily.

The DRC took on the rotating chairship of the African Union on February 6. Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi, as acting AU chair, said that he would make primary health care and vaccinations the “key pillars” of his fight against Covid-10. The DRC is one of the countries that will benefit from the Covax initiative run by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which aims to help low income countries access Covid-19 vaccines. The WHO has promised to deliver 500 million doses to the countries in the scheme by summer.