DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania—Blaring Singeli music is one of the few sources of entertainment for poor slum dwellers in Manzese, part of Tanzania’s smoke-belching capital city of Dar es Salaam.
But for the 32-year-old Mariam Kinesha, the electronic music known for its fast beats, exuberant shaking dance style and muddled MC-driven lyrics, is not only a source of entertainment but a tool to educate the public about the importance of taking COVID-19 vaccines.
“I am very happy to see musicians are using this music to convey important public health message,” she tells Health Policy Watch.
Tanzania has had a remarkable turnaround in its attitude towards COVID-19 since the death in March 2021 of its then-president John Magufuli.
Magufuli had denied that the virus existed in his country, denounced vaccines and proposed that people pray instead of taking treatment.
However, since his deputy, Samira Hassan, became president, Tanzania managed to vaccinate over 50% of its population.
“The remarkable increase from less than 10% coverage with a primary series in January 2022 is a result of continued efforts by the government and health stakeholders in rolling out relevant strategies to sustain COVID-19 vaccination amidst competing health priorities – and a tribute to the value and commitment of health-care workers and community volunteers who literally went the extra mile to reach the population,” according to COVAX, the global vaccine platform.
In July 2021, Hassan publicly took the Johnson & Johnson vaccine during the launch of the national awareness campaign and, with support from the COVAX initiative, the country has embraced the vaccination drive.
However, Tanzania has repeatedly struggled to counter misinformation and people’s reluctance to be vaccinated.
To quell growing scepticism against COVID-19 vaccines, Tanzania’s Ministry of Health embarked on community mobilisation campaigns that included community influencers.
Community health workers, musicians and others have become part of the government-led communication strategy to share reliable information about the pandemic, dispel the tide of misinformation and boost the vaccine numbers.
Amani Hamisi, known by his stage name, Man Fongo, is widely regarded as the ‘king’ of Singeli. He says the music genre has reached new heights by mobilising young people to get vaccinated.
“As a singer, my job is to entertain but also to educate the people about the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of getting vaccinated,” he said.
At the interactive Singeli music festivals he has headlined in many parts of the country, Man Fongo has sought to allay long-standing mistrust of the public health system.
At the Mziki Mnene music festival, Man Fongo – dressed in a slim-fit leopard skin outfit – spat out lyrical verses containing positive messages about the COVID-19 vaccine.
As disco lights filtered through scented smoke, his music took the audience by storm with its hard-to-hate vocals and repetitive verses about issues that resonate with the reality of life in slums.
One of the myths Man Fongo has addressed is the myth that the jab causes infertility.
“Many young people are now willing to vaccinate because I have also vaccinated and assure them the injection is safe,” said Man Fongo.
His messages have been reinforced by other measures including community-led group discussions, public meetings and music festivals, he added.
Like other local musicians Man Fongo, who is followed by 10.7 million people on Instagram, has also used social media platforms to help increase the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines.
Social media campaign has been an important part of the government-led campaign to raise awareness and speed up laggard vaccine uptake.
“Social media is a very powerful tool for conveying accurate public health information. Many people are now willing to vaccinate certainly because they read somewhere the vaccines are safe” said Tumaini Nagu, Tanzania’s Chief Medical Officer.
According to Nagu, the combination of social media and community–led outreach programs have helped propel the number of people who willingly took the vaccines.
Tanzania has maintained a sustained COVID-19 vaccination rollout – surpassing the target of fully vaccinating 50% of its population – thanks to multiple awareness-raising interventions.
Tanzania, which recorded 42,942 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 846 deaths, has administered 39,392,419 COVID-19 doses.
Derrick Sim, the Acting Managing director of COVAX, said in a recent interview that Tanzania had banked on multiple innovative approaches including civil society partnerships to raise awareness and curb the people’s hesitance to take the shot.
“Tanzania has developed some highly innovative approaches on how to roll out COVID-19 vaccines and at the same time, catch up on routine immunisation programmes,” Sim said.
“The country’s progress and commitment shown by government and partners to protect people against COVID-19 is commendable and demonstrates that countries can develop the ability to deal with multiple immunisation priorities at the same time.”
In addition, the country has also integrated its COVID-19 vaccination with routine immunisation, as seen in the recent integrated measles campaign in the Katavi Region in February this year, according to COVAX.
“The country has additionally relied on innovative approaches such as civil society partnerships with government to raise awareness and combat hesitance.”
Although vaccine hesitance is a hurdle obstructing global efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, studies show social media play a vital role in shaping people’s attitudes toward public health interventions.
There are about 29 million internet users in Tanzania, almost half the country’s population of 62 million. The number of internet users and penetration rate has been remarkably increased in recent years.
In an interview with Health Policy Watch, Syriacus Buguzi, a doctor- turned- journalist who runs a communications company, Research com, said social media is a vital tool for sharing information about COVID-19 vaccines.
Buguzi, who worked as an investigator for the Corona Swahili Project, has mobilised young people on social media platforms to take the shot as well as mobilising scientists and other social media influencers to post positive messages about the efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Our messages were aimed at informing the people how vaccines would help improve the quality of life, keep them away from travel restrictions and give them confidence after all the trials and tribulations brought about by the pandemic,” he said.
“Through social media campaigns, many young people had access to accurate information that helped them make informed decisions,” he said.
Neema Kimu, a community health worker in Tanzania’s Coast region, told Health Policy Watch that the vaccination campaign has succeeded due to close collaboration between different players and community engagement.
“I am moving door-to-door to tell people the vaccine is safe,” she said, walking more than 10km every day to discharge her duty.
Kimu has also been organising village meetings where people openly express their feelings about the vaccines and ask questions about the safety of the vaccines.
“It is not easy to change the perception of the community but with time the society has started to understand and they are willing to vaccinate,” she said.
The government-led COVID 19 advocacy campaign conducted in Swahili has also helped to reverse negative sentiments against the jabs in rural areas, Kimu said.
Utete village, perched on the rambling Rufiji river delta south of Dar es Salaam, appeared an unlikely setting for promoting public health policy.
In the southeastern Rufiji, fear about COVID-19 vaccines was widespread. As cases emerged in villages, fear of the disease was matched by the fear of the injection among the healthy, said Kimu
Rumours fast circulated, first that the vaccine for health workers was different from that being administered to the general public, then that the shot led to infertility.
Community health workers like Kimu have been instrumental in dispelling rumours and delivering health services to people in hard-to-reach areas, ensuring that no one is left behind, local residents said.
Villages in Rufiji have now achieved 92% vaccination of eligible adults, Kimu said.
“We help society to get the right information about the safety of the vaccine,” she concluded humbly.
This article is part of a series sponsored by the 2023 COVID-19 Influencers Social Media Awards. The awards are meant to provide a safe space to honour the social media users who helped combat misinformation and drive understanding of the pandemic when we needed it most.
Nominations for award candidates are being solicited around the world on the open access platform which anyone can join. The platform is co-sponsored by UniteHealth and eight other non-profit organizations engaged in public health and health-related media work – including Health Policy Watch.
Image Credits: Muhidin Issa Michuzi, Tanzania Health Department .
This article was written by Kizito Makoye and first appeared in Health Policy Watch here.