New study highlights challenges of communities’ response towards Covid-19 mitigation measures


Prof. Nelson Sewankambo, is the director of THRiVE (Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence (PHOTO /Courtesy)

A new study conducted by a team of researchers from Makerere University led by Prof. Nelson Sewankambo reveals that there was an increase in resentment to the new social norms imposed by the Covid-19 emergency response during the first national lockdown.

Between November 2020 and January 2021, the researchers examined over 1200 men, women and children aged above 12 in order to establish community perceptions about the existence and origin of COVID-19; its mode of transmission; signs and symptoms, prevention, control and treatment methods.

Also, they sought to determine changes in prevailing attitudes towards COVID-19 mitigation measures and communities’ response to new social norms such as wearing of face masks.

The study was conducted in Nakawa (10 villages) and Kawempe (20 villages) divisions of Kampala.

Using survey questionnaires, household conversations, focus group discussions and in-depth interviews, they found that some respondents perceived COVID-19 to be non-existent and reported deaths were attributed to other causes rather than the disease.

Given that the pandemic was first identified in China, some community members believed that it was a disease for whites and not people of black ethnic origin. Therefore, owing to the low perception of risk, many community members resented public health measures stipulated by government such as frequent handwashing and wearing of facemasks.

“Of the 835 participants surveyed, 675 (80%) did not wear masks at all, or wore them inappropriately such as under their chins, or foreheads or partially covering the mouth. Similarly, only 130 participants washed their hands regularly after greeting visitors, touching unhygienic objects or visiting restrooms,” the report partly reads.

Notably, the low adherence was also reported among some of the enforcers of the social measures and was associated with ‘prevention fatigue’. Furthermore, the study reveals that although there was correct knowledge and awareness about existence and severity of COVID-19 early during the epidemic, control of the disease is not well known.

This breeds misperceptions about the disease that persists within the community and plays into vaccine hesitancy. Together these factors limit the effectiveness of efforts to control the pandemic.

Whereas at the time of the study there was no authorized COVID-19 vaccine anywhere in the world, misperceptions about COVID-19 vaccines and treatment were already prevalent. One of the strongest beliefs attached to the COVID vaccine is that it may hurt fertility, which is something very serious in the context of some faiths.

Moreover, some respondents were of the view that there is no virus and it is just a propaganda of multinationals to sell their expensive vaccines.

“Many community members believed that traditional home remedies and religious practices could be effective for treating COVID-19 rather than vaccines. Even among those who believed in them, there were some who thought that they were not effective and suspected that they were fake and were being used by foreign entities to harm Africans,” reads findings from the study.

It’s no surprise that the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine in the country has experienced low uptake.

Wholly, the study found that a contextually relevant community engagement model, which succeeded in mitigating Ebola has been absent during this pandemic in Uganda.

The top-down approach by government in implanting COVID-19 prevention and control measures such as lockdowns has been met with stiff resistance among vulnerable communities in the two Kampala divisions.

According to the researchers, success of any measures against the COVID-19 required community participation, ownership and sustainability of the efforts at grassroots levels. This implies integrating community communication and participation into prevention and control measures.

Additionally, community engagement helps government to gain an insight into the perceptions and behaviors of different groups, and to develop effective and targeted messaging to ensure that fear, panic and rumours do not undermine response efforts

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