September 7, 2022

Day

How conspiracy beliefs affect COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy

By Dr. Emilly Comfort Maractho

The outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) in 2020 created substantial fear among communities and countries about the future. It seemed to have come from ‘nowhere’ even after China announced its arrival. Many questions arose as to whether it was deliberately created and released by scientists and their allies for some unknown reasons. 

Governments across the globe launched interventions to facilitate the public’s compliance with preventive and mitigative measures, also known as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). The measures included physical distancing also known as social distancing, regular handwashing, wearing masks, and vaccination to boost herd immunity

Speculation soon became a common feature of COVID-19, about the cause, the effects, and the people behind it. Theories begun to emerge around these issues. 

Uganda enacted legislations, restrictions, policies and interventions to prevent and mitigate the spread and impact of COVID-19. These included, but were not limited to, the Uganda Public Health (Control of COVID – 19) Rules, 2020; guidelines on mass gatherings including social meetings such as burials and weddings; guidelines on meeting at workplaces, guidelines on use of public transport; among others.  

Whereas the world was relieved about the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, emergent concerns around safety and effects were prevalent. The concerns and doubts about vaccines were mainly driven by conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 vaccination, sometimes widely shared among the population.  

Conspiracy theories cannot be taken lightly. At Uganda Christian University, Prof. Kukunda Elizabeth Bacwayo, an Associate Prof. of Governance and Development in the School of Social Sciences, with a multi-disciplinary team of colleagues from UCU were awarded a research grant by the university to study how conspiracy beliefs affected COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy in Uganda. In a three-year project that covers a large-scale online and physical survey of over 1000 respondents, to be followed by in-depth interviews, the team aims at examining the conspiracy beliefs and their implications for COVID-19 vaccination in Uganda. 

The research is guided by five specific objectives, namely: 

(i) To measure the extent to which conspiracy belief about vaccination against COVID-19 is spread among Ugandans; 

(ii) To establish the relationship between conspiracy belief and vaccination hesitancy in Uganda; 

(iii) To explore the interaction between exposure to COVID-19 conspiracy theories and individual vaccination decisions; 

(iv) To examine the gendered impact of conspiracy belief on vaccination hesitancy; 

(v) To examine how the conspiracy beliefs of adults are likely to affect decision to vaccinate children for COVID-19.  

The researchers note that, whereas in developed countries studies have already established the significant relationship between conspiracy theories and decline in vaccination rates, such studies are very few in developing countries. For instance, Maftei and Holman in 2020, in their study, ‘beliefs in conspiracy theories, intolerance of uncertainty, and moral disengagement during the coronavirus crisis’ highlighted that conspiracy beliefs had significant impact on disobeying the social distancing regulations seeking to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2.

The researchers are aware that in countries like Uganda with a population highly characterized by low education and poor access to information, beliefs in conspiracy theories and impact are expected to be high.  Still, little is known and done to minimize the impact of misinformation on COVID-19 prevention. In addition, with more people owning smartphones, conspiracy theories are likely to flourish as a result of high exposure to various ideas. 

Some of the examples of conspiracy theories include:

  • The belief that the G5 cellular network is responsible for causing COVID-19,
  • Bill Gates’ plan to depopulate the world,
  • Vaccinations having microchips that can be used to monitor behaviour. 
  • Others include the belief that those who get vaccinated will die in a few years, and that the whole COVID-19 pandemic was a political stunt.  

The primary outcome of this study is to understand how conspiracy beliefs affect the individual willingness to get vaccinated. Findings from this study could be used to improve on the efforts geared towards pro-vaccine attitudes and interest in COVID-19 vaccination. The main outcome will be a change in behavior towards vaccination for COVID-19 despite the existence of conspiracy theories and management of future vaccination drives.

The research has gone through both institutional and national ethical clearance processes. The first phase has been completed and will soon be made public.