As Papua New Guinea grappled with a monumental outbreak of Covid-19 last month, prime minister James Marape became the first person in the country to receive a dose of the vaccine, sent in an emergency shipment from Australia.
Prior to receiving the jab he had told people he would be the vaccine’s PNG “guinea pig”; that if he died people didn’t have to take it, but if he didn’t, he hoped others would follow suit and receive the vaccination.
Marape’s two brothers were also in the first group to receive the vaccine, despite not being frontline health workers. Speaking to the Post Courier after the injections, his brother, Warren Marape, said they did so out of concern for their brother.
“We were worried, we were concerned,” Warren told the Post Courier. “What made it worse was that there were so many conspiracy theories and even some doctors… posting in public forums and social media against the AstraZeneca vaccines… a Papua New Guinean will stand by his brother, if it means to die with his brother, he will,” he said.
The comments not only highlight the degree of vaccine hesitancy in PNG, but also the driving force that social media misinformation has been. A vicious misinformation campaign has flooded social media channels with vaccine conspiracy theories for much of the past year.
A report by ABC International Development and the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme has uncovered worrying trends which show 62% of Facebook posts about Covid-19 vaccines in the region make unsubstantiated claims about vaccines, with popular falsehoods including that vaccines have been manufactured to track personal data, are counter to the foundations of the Christian faith, and impact fertility, circulated widely across the region.
One post, in a Samoan news discussion group said that this had been “predicted in down the Bible… we’re living in our last days”, while another in Fiji has said that “apart from blood clots, vaccines are designed to render women infertile for population control”
In PNG, where new Covid-19 cases have increased ten-fold since February, the nation’s health minister Jelta Wong has labelled disinformation on social media as the “biggest challenge” to abating the spread of Covid-19. As Minister Wong knows, any return to normality hinges on widespread community vaccination to develop immunity.
Just 3,075 of 8,500 AstraZeneca vaccines donated by Australia to PNG in March had been administered in Port Moresby as of 11 May, according to the World Health Organization, with Wong citing vaccine hesitancy as the key barrier.
A shipment of 100,000 doses, from the Covax initiative, which bring vaccines to developing nations, has now arrived in PNG, and the fears of officials is no longer that there won’t be enough vaccines for those who need them, but that the vaccines they have will expire before they are put into people’s arms.
“Addressing vaccine hesitancy … is crucial to the success of the Covid-19 vaccination program in PNG,” aid Dr Pamela Toliman, a research fellow at the PNG Institute of Medical Research. The institute is conducting research into the role of social media in the time of Covid-19.
“There is certainly a need to ascertain public willingness to accept the vaccine, but also to understand underlying factors that fuel the spread of misinformation”, she said.
In the neighbouring country of Solomon Islands, president of the Solomon Islands Medical Association, Dr Claude Posala, has said that a social media “information overload” initially reduced trust in vaccines in his country, as residents struggled to sift reliable information from falsehoods.
Solomon Islands received its first shipment of 24,000 AstraZeneca doses on 23 March. Frontline workers were initially prioritised for inoculations, however, just 600 were administered in the first three days. The issue was not supply, but demand. Workers simply did not trust the vaccine.
However, a strong counter-campaign by the government is increasing access to reliable information, and has built trust. By 25 April, close to 5,000 people had been vaccinated in both Honiara and Western province, with reports of queues outside vaccination hubs.
“The government is now engaging in social media communications. As a result, information about vaccines that would have taken two weeks to reach communities has been provided in a short period of time, boosting trust. We are now seeing enthusiasm to get vaccinated,” said Posala.
The pandemic has highlighted the powerful role of social media in storytelling and information sharing in the Pacific. In many countries, Facebook is accessed more widely than traditional media. Accordingly, verified information channels are destabilised, and opinion is accessed more widely than fact.
In the Fijian capital of Suva, which is in lockdown following the detection of the Indian variant of Covid-19, vaccine hesitancy is wearing off, says Jope Tarai, a social media expert at the University of the South Pacific.
“Enthusiasm for vaccines has increased dramatically. With Suva in lockdown, Fijians are prepared to accept vaccines in order to get their lives back. As more people are successfully vaccinated, trust increases that social media conspiracy theories are false,” said Tarai.
Owing to the central role that social media plays, it is now assisting the vaccine process, rather than hindering it.
“Social media is now filled with images of people lining up for vaccinations – building trust and eagerness to be vaccinated,” said Tarai.