August 3, 2021

In northern Nigeria, Muslim volunteers and leaders mobilize against Covid-19

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Aspiring pilgrims await their second injection of the coronavirus vaccine on May 31, 2021, in Kano.

Covered with the long blue veil stitched with a Unicef ​​crest which serves as his uniform, Sadiya Ibrahim watches over the health of the inhabitants of the Kwata district, in Kano. Almost 400 households are under the supervision of this mother, known and appreciated in her community. She is one of some 200,000 volunteers hired across the country to raise awareness of good health practices, take births into account and encourage everyone to take part in immunization campaigns. A mission that has doubled, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with an information campaign in favor of vaccination.

“When the coronavirus appeared, we were already ready and we relied on the same strategy as for polio”, underlines Sadiya Ibrahim, who fleshed out his speech with advice on social distancing or wearing a mask. Across Kano State, the 6,000 volunteers – mostly women – had indeed played a crucial role in eradicating wild poliovirus in recent years.

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Nigeria was the last African state declared polio-free, in August 2020, while eight years earlier, the most populous country on the continent with more than 200 million inhabitants concentrated half of the cases declared in the world of this infection causing paralysis. Epicenter of the epidemic at the time with 80% of cases, Kano State is today the Nigerian province with the highest vaccination coverage in the country (more than 90% of the population).

Health scandal

« Using the structures put in place for the polio vaccination campaign, we have managed to use up all the doses we have received so far ”, says Dr. Tijjani Hussain, executive secretary of the Kano State Primary Care Management Board. At the beginning of March, Nigeria received nearly 4 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, as part of the Covax system of the World Health Organization (WHO). 219,000 of them were allocated to Kano State according to Tijjani Hussain, who concedes “That the figure may seem ridiculous” compared to the total population of nearly 10 million inhabitants.

However, in the Muslim north of Nigeria, vaccination is not always straightforward. “We are facing a lot of hesitation from the population. There are questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine, people are wondering if it is safe ”, admits the doctor.

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Mistrust also fueled by a health scandal in 1996. Eleven children had died and several others disabled after receiving a controversial drug produced by the American company Pfizer. The pharmaceutical giant had been accused of having taken advantage of the very serious meningitis epidemic then raging in the region to carry out unauthorized clinical trials. The case resulted in the payment of substantial compensation to Kano State and to the families of the victims in 2011. The polio vaccination campaign of the early 2000s thus met with strong resistance, to the point of ‘be suspended between September 2003 and November 2004, when some political leaders and religious leaders accused the vaccine of causing infertility.

Since then, things have changed radically under the impetus in particular of the powerful Emir of Kano and his council. “Without the support of the religious, it is impossible to succeed in a vaccination campaign”, even assures – in Arabic – Sheikh Muhammad Nasir Adam, who chairs the council of imams of the State. “Religious are everywhere, imams can sensitize the population in their sermons, or call to be vaccinated against the coronavirus during religious ceremonies”, develops ulema, which works in close collaboration with Unicef.

Real pandemic

The awareness-raising messages issued by the council of the emir are quickly disseminated among village chiefs, district officials, in each district and even in each household. But the incentive also came from abroad: several thousand aspirants to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca were thus vaccinated as a priority in Kano State. On May 31, around 100 of them received the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, in the presence of the state governor.

“I am confident, yes, but above all I have no other options if I want to be able to travel”, smiles Fatima Bello, her face framed by a black veil, embroidered with fine pink flowers. In front of the crowd seated on plastic chairs, doctors and officials, microphone in hand, tirelessly repeat that the pandemic is very real. Fatima believes in it, but like all the other aspiring pilgrims interviewed, she says she does not know “Person, but then not a single person” who contracted the disease in the past year.

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Umma Abdul-Kadir, almost 70, prefers “Pray” since she heard “That those who are vaccinated risk dying after five years.” ” One of his neighbors preferred to give up the pilgrimage to escape vaccination. “ But I am ready to sacrifice myself, because the Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam! “, exclaims the little woman with a mischievous smile. Aliyu Umar, meanwhile, took two days off to come from Lagos, especially for the vaccination. “It took me five years to save money to pay for this trip to Mecca for me and my mother”, he explains. Well aware of “The importance of vaccination”, Aliyu assures that he would have been vaccinated “Even if he did not have the project to do the Hajj”.

Finally, Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday, June 12, that only 60,000 vaccinated residents could make it to Mecca this year, depriving more than 70,000 Nigerians of their pilgrimage for the second year in a row, despite promises of vaccination.