Nigerians Distributing COVID Vaccines Often Doing So Without Pay, Risk of Gang Kidnapping

Nigeria is facing low vaccination rates, leading Nigerians to deliver vaccinations themselves to homes through dangerous routes and gang activity.

Africa's most populous country has only 3.78 million people out of its 206 million population fully vaccinated but is aiming to have 55 million vaccinated in the next two months.

Health care clinics are now taking matters into their own hands, having their workers get in their own motorcycles and bikes to bring vaccinations to villagers across the country. Armed gangs are known to kidnap travelers along certain routes, making the trips treacherous.

In addition to the dangerous roads, workers taking the journeys are often not being paid or even reimbursed for travel costs.

According to Dr. Rilwanu Mohammed, the top government official leading vaccination efforts in the Bauchi state in Nigeria, delayed payments for vaccine deliverers has been "a big challenge," and caused him to have to find funds to pay the workers himself.

"They won't pay the money until when the people have finished the work, and there is no money for movement from one point to another," Mohammed said.

Dr. Faisal Shuaib, executive director of Nigeria's National Primary Health Care Development Agency who orchestrates the COVID-19 vaccination distribution said that "poor planning (and) poor coordination that results in difficulties or challenges in making sure that the vaccines actually get to rural areas," in an interview with The Associated Press.

Africa Vaccine Delivery
Nigeria is facing low vaccination rates, leading Nigerians to deliver vaccinations themselves to homes through dangerous routes and gang activity. Yunusa Bawa, a community health worker, rides on a motorbike with a box of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines, in Sabon Kuje on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, Dec 6, 2021. Gbemiga Olamikan/Associated Press

Yunusa Bawa rolled his motorcycle away from the health care clinic where he works in Kuje, southwest of Nigeria's capital of Abuja, and secured a black box of COVID-19 vaccine for the rough ride ahead.

Going directly to the villagers is one way to overcome any hesitancy they might have in getting the shots, said Bawa, 39.

"When you meet them in their home, there is no problem," he added. "Everybody will take (the vaccine)."

On Dec. 1, Nigeria began requiring government employees to be vaccinated or show a negative test for the virus in the past 72 hours. Although authorities emphasize the country is capable of getting the Western-manufactured vaccines to everyone, health care workers in rural areas are struggling, mostly because of delayed government funding.

At the Sabo health center in Kuje, a town of about 300,000 people near Abuja's international airport, Bawa and three colleagues work in dilapidated buildings with worn-out office equipment. In the past three months, only two of them have received compensation from the government, getting about 10,000 Nigerian naira (about $24).

That's barely enough to cover the gas for Bawa's personal motorcycle — "the one we are using to move around and inform them that we are coming on specific dates," he said as he held the hand of 75-year-old Aminu Baodo before giving him a shot.

On a good day, he can get to about 20 people, but usually it is five or fewer. Many rural residents are poor and spend most of their time on farms scattered across the countryside, rather than in their homes in the village.

That often means a long day for Bawa and his coworkers, in addition to the risk of violence and waiting weeks for paltry compensation. He said he is unsure when he'll next be paid by the government for his efforts or how long his personal finances will hold out.

A 20-year-old colleague, Yusuf Nasiru, said he hasn't been paid or reimbursed for expenses since starting the job in November.

"If you should work on weekends, you should be paid," said Dr. Ndaeyo Iwot, executive secretary of Abuja's primary health care agency, which oversees vaccinations in the capital. He added that government workers who go out on mobile teams should have logistical support.

Armed groups in northwestern and central parts of Nigeria have killed hundreds of people this year and kidnapped thousands, seeking ransoms.

Others criticize the government for not adequately funding a campaign to inform people about the coronavirus and the need for vaccination.

"Nobody around here knows anything about the vaccine to be frank," said Omorogbe Omorogiuwa, who lives in Adamawa state, which borders the country of Chad in northeastern Nigeria. "Nobody is saying you should go and take it. In fact, it is assumed that (the pandemic) is over."

Officials also have to battle skepticism about the vaccine in many parts of Nigeria, a deeply religious country where some religious leaders spread misinformation about the virus and the vaccine to their millions of followers.

In addition to false information spread on social media, some in northern Nigeria remember the 1996 deaths of several children from meningitis during a Pfizer clinical trial for an oral antibiotic, resulting in a legal battle with the pharmaceutical giant that won payouts for some families.

Authorities have been engaging with traditional and religious leaders to get the truth about the vaccine to their followers, Shuaib said.

"But clearly, a lot of work still needs to be done by some states in ensuring that these vaccines get to the communities," he added, noting that Nigeria has 30 million doses on hand, with many more arriving in the coming months.

Adewunmi Emoruwa, the lead strategist at Gatefield, an Abuja-based consultancy group, said the government should be more focused on "promoting vaccine safety and efficacy," rather than implementing a mandate for state employees. Public servants will spread the word about the vaccine if they are "convinced" it will work, he added.

Musa Ahmed, an immunization officer in Kuje, said "social mobilization has not been taken place ... and that is (why) some people are still doubting the vaccine."

That has left a large part of Nigeria's population unvaccinated and at "very great" risk of exposure, said Dr. Richard Mihigo, immunization and vaccines development program coordinator for the World Health Organization's Africa regional office.

"As much as we give the opportunity to the virus to continue to circulate in a naive population, we give the virus the opportunity to mutate," Mihigo said in an online briefing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.