“The Bible City” “Only way out is to repent” “Hell fire is for real sinners” These were some of the inscriptions that welcomed me to the home of Evangelist Setordzi Dogbey, 67, who lives with his wife and children at Setsinu Avanukpota, a small community within the Anloga District of the Volta Region, Ghana.
Anloga is a town located in the Keta Municipal District of the Volta Region in southeast Ghana. It lies east of the Volta River and just south of the Keta Lagoon, around 169 kilometers from the capital Accra, about 3 hours and 30 minutes by car.
Bounded by green vegetation often ruffled by gentle sea breeze, the abode of this father of eight is located on the outskirts of the community and welcomes one to a serene ambiance.
Addressed as “Efo,” (a title used by Ewes to show respect to for senior or elderly men), for the last two decades Dogbey and his family have secluded themselves from the main community. This is not just to enjoy nature but to ‘preserve their righteous lives’ in order to make it to their Creator at the end of their lives here on earth.
None of Efo Dogbey’ children have ever been enrolled in formal education. They are all home-schooled. They have all been delivered at home. And, in times of illness, neither he nor anyone in his family would ever turn to modern orthodox medicines.
“As for me, I don’t like injections and orthodox medicines,” he tells me. “They are white man’s medicines. I don’t like them and I don’t give them to my children either, not when you are under my roof. We only use herbs.”
I have come to this part of Ghana on a fact-finding mission about COVID-19 vaccinations to find out more about this area, the Anloga District, which has the lowest vaccination rate in Ghana so far.
For Evangelist Dogbey, who’s been evangelizing for some 30 years, the reason COVID-19 even exists is clear. “COVID-19 is a punishment from God,” he says with certainty, and as such, people whose ways are right with the Lord cannot be infected with the virus.
“I haven’t taken the vaccine and I will never take it,” he says, adding that, ‘since the disease came, I travel. I go and return always and I haven’t been infected.”
For him, this is a way of testing what he believes in his heart. “I want to see if God is real because if not, I would have been infected, so as for me, I know God will protect me as long as my ways are right with Him.”
Evangelist Dogbey’s perception of the COVID-19 vaccines mirrors a deep-seated religious and highly radical stance against the COVID-19 vaccination that is not only held in the Anloga District, but by many throughout the entire Volta Region.
By the end of November 2022, the region, which is the least vaccinated according to the Ghana Health Services’ (GHS) COVID-19 Dashboard, had yet to meet half of its targeted population for vaccination.
According to the Dashboard data, out of a target of 1.4 million from a total population of 1.9 million, 627,037 vaccine doses had been administered, of which 19% (264,586), were fully immunized, 382,994 taken at least one jab, and 46,528 had taken a booster shot.
From high apathy and indifference to low levels of perceived risks, strong spiritual inclinations and connotations, doubts about the existence of the virus, and, to an extent, political dispositions, a number of community members interviewed expressed their reluctance to take the COVID-19 jabs.
As a result of these closely held attitudes, it’s been difficult for government messaging about the dangers of COVID-19, vaccination and medical services efforts to make inroads.
“Issues here are a bit deeper than other places, although they cut across the region,” said Perfect Titiati, the Anloga District Health Director.
She described resistance to the COVID-19 vaccines in the area as very strong saying; “They may be similar (to other parts of the country) but here, the magnitude may be even higher.”
“The belief systems here are very strong, especially when you have religious leaders who the people revere pushing hard against the uptake of the vaccines,” she continued.
The District, Ms Titiati noted, has a target population for 76,000 for COVID-19 vaccination but by end of August, only 18 %, close to 14, 000 had received at least a first jab of the vaccine with a larger of eligible persons unvaccinated.
“We are intensifying extensive sensitization in all the communities. We’ve had stakeholders from diverse backgrounds especially traditional and religious leaders coming on board to support us in diffusing some misconceptions about the vaccination and get people to take their jabs,” she said.
Generally, health authorities admit that high levels of hesitancy, misinformation, disinformation, as well as low risk perceptions continue to militate against Ghana’s COVID-19 vaccination drive.
As of December 9, 2022, only about 9.2 million (40%) of the targeted 22.9 million eligible population were fully immunized, a figure far short of the country’s goal of achieving at least 60 percent herd immunity.
A recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) cautions that countries that have not vaccinated 60% percent of their population by mid-2022, per the WHO target, are likely to register trillions in GDP losses, around $2.3 trillion USD by 2025.
As it stands, Ghana is already facing a dire economic downturn with government attributing the COVID-19 pandemic as major contributing factor to this recession.
Dr. Hubert Amu is a population health scientist and lecturer at the Department of Population and Behavioural Sciences in the school of public health, at the University of Health and Allied Sciences (UHAS)-Hohoe. In an interview he noted that while diverse strategies have been deployed to encourage the vaccine acceptance, little has been done in the area of leveraging social education to get people to take the jabs.
“The factors influencing hesitancy so far cut across the whole country, but from a research study we have conducted, these factors are more entrenched in these parts,” he said, speaking of the Volta Region. Change is slow to come here, he said, mainly because people in this area hold fast to “their stereotypes and deep-rooted beliefs, which are difficult to permeate.”
For instance, Dr. Amu continued, “We have very indigenous African traditional and religious sects here and the region is home to some of the oldest religions you can find in the country, even in terms of Christianity, so people here have long-held attitudes and beliefs that they would not want to alter and will need a lot of tact to get them to embrace or accept change.”
Dr Amu advised that moving forward, health officials need to improve social education with a focus on dispelling the rumors and misconceptions around the virus and vaccines to bridge the existing gaps.
“We should send the right people to the communities like medical doctors, community champions, community leaders; people they can believe more or trust, to disseminate information; use the local language to communicate, and build trust in the health system to encourage the COVID-19 vaccine uptake,” he advised.
At a time when WHO is warning against complacency in the COVID-19 fight, calling for coordinated action and political commitments to save lives and prevent economic and health damage from the ongoing pandemic, Ghana would have to marshal all arsenals to reach its target in the near future, especially to get those who are still resisting getting on-board.
People like Evangelist Dogbey would need more convincing to buy-into the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves from severe effect from the SARs-COV-2 virus and the risk it poses to the society.
“Low vaccination rates make it easier for the virus to mutate, creating new variants that could potentially spread globally,” a report published by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in sub-Saharan Africa cautions, adding, “The economic impact is just one reason. At its core, there’s a moral imperative.”