PIERRE MICHEL JEAN / AFP

The origins of Haiti’s vaccine hesitancy

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: “Disinformation laundromat” on Facebook; anti-vaccine vandalism

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Facebook unearthed a vast Russia-based anti-vaccine disinformation campaign this week. On Tuesday, the social media giant announced that it had removed 65 Facebook and 243 Instagram accounts amplifying anti-vaccine content. Investigators from the company linked the network to British marketing firm Fazze and operated from Russia. The campaign — dubbed a “disinformation laundromat” by Facebook — primarily targeted users in Latin America, India, and the U.S. through fake articles and petitions circulated on Medium, Reddit and Change.org, and then spread on social media via fake Facebook and Instagram accounts. One of the conspiracies, often accompanied in this campaign by images from the “Planet of the Apes” movies, is the claim that the AstraZeneca jab would turn people into chimpanzees – an old favorite of Russian state propaganda. 

In France, hostility towards vaccination is fueling vandalism, according to the French Ministry of Interior, which has recorded 22 acts of vandalism and 60 threats against testing and vaccination centers and pharmacies. Last month, someone flooded a vaccination center in southeast France and its walls graffitied with “vaccinations are the new genocide.” In Toulouse, a slip of paper found at a vaccination center contained the ominous warning that “one day this will all be blown up.” On Wednesday, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin sent a letter to local authorities calling on French police to more vigorously protect vaccine centers. The vandalism comes amid a surge of protests over the French government’s introduction of a health pass requiring proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test to enter cafes, restaurants, and other public places. Roughly 237,000 people protested across the country on Saturday, including 17,000 in Paris, according to the interior ministry. 

No one is allowed to protest in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most authoritarian states, where the government is now taking new measures against those who refuse to vaccinate. Authorities have repeatedly denied the existence of Covid-19, but that hasn’t stopped them from making vaccinations against it mandatory. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Turkmen service reports that in Turkmenistan’s northern Lebap region, doctors are turning over lists of vaccine refusers to the local officials.. Those who refuse the shot will be fined around $32 dollars and could lose their pensions. 

Last month, I reported on a torrent of conspiracy theories unleashed by the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. While headlines in the country have largely focused on the political crisis unleashed by the killing, Haiti now also finds itself mired in vaccine hesitancy and Covid misinformation.

SPOTLIGHT: HAITI 

Earlier this week, Jean-Claude Louis was catching up with an acquaintance who worked in the medical field when the coronavirus vaccine came up. “I will never get the vaccine,” she told him. “You don’t know what you’re getting.”

As the coordinator of Panos Institute, a Haitian nonprofit that trains journalists and youth on media literacy and identifying disinformation, Louis has been paying close attention to the vaccine myths circulating online and in-person. And he is worried about how much of it is spreading inside Haiti’s medical community. “The problem is there are so many false rumors about vaccines,” he added. “People are very hesitant about getting the vaccines.”

I approached Louis after coming across a dataset laying out vaccination rates for the Americas. Topping the list was Uruguay, where nearly 75% of the population has gotten at least one vaccine dose. All the way at the bottom was Haiti, with just 0.14% of the population inoculated against Covid-19.

Haiti was one of the last countries in the world –and the last in Latin America and the Caribbean –to begin distributing the shot. In fact, it hadn’t gotten any at all until last month. Then, on July 14, a shipment of 500,000 doses from the United States via the United Nations-backed COVAX program arrived in the country. The delivery came a week after Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was brazenly assassinated in his home, plunging the country into political crisis.

The vaccine rollout was hailed as a “bright spot” during an otherwise tumultuous moment in Haiti. But another statistic caught my eye: according to a June survey by UNICEF and the University of Haiti, just 22% of adults said they were interested in getting the shot. Compare that with this February survey of global vaccination attitudes, where 88% of Brazilian adults, 85% of Chinese and Mexican adults, and 80% of Spanish and Italian adults said they intended to get the Covid-19 jab. Even in Russia, where vaccine acceptance was the lowest of all countries polled, 42% of adults said they would get a shot if made available — nearly double Haiti’s openness rate. 

While there is likely no universal cause for vaccine skepticism, Haiti’s extreme case shows how much distrust in institutions is fuel for vaccine hesitancy. 

Haitians have good reasons to distrust international institutions; after all, experts have determined that United Nations peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti, where at least 10,000 people died of the disease, despite years of vehement denial from U.N. officials. And just last year, thirteen rights monitors from within the United Nations lambasted the organization for failing to make amends for bringing cholera to the country. The incident has left many Haitians deeply distrustful of the very institutions leading the global vaccination drive through the COVAX program. As Brian Concannon, founder of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, a coalition of Haitian and U.S. human rights advocates, told me: “​​Basically the international community burned all its credibility on public health messaging by lying about cholera.”

He added: “They don’t trust the U.N., they don’t trust the government. The messenger is the problem.”

Coda Story’s Mariam Kiparoidze and Masho Lomashvili contributed to this edition. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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