How elections professionals can support the Covax vaccination drive

Africa's vaccine rollout will need to reach remote areas and counter disinformation. Elections specialists have many of the skills needed to speed up the process.

Opinion by

Image : Ben Graham Jones

Whilst the Covid-19 pandemic has put the world on pause, the elections field has kept the wheels of democracy turning. In Africa, elections professionals have held Covid-secure elections, sent Covid-resistant election observation missions, and drawn attention to when the pandemic has been used as a means to clamp down on democratic rights.

As we continue to do our bit to contribute, our attention should now turn to the Covax rollout. At the beginning of March, the first Covid-19 vaccines were administered in Africa as part of the global Covax programme. In total, Covax aims to deliver 600m vaccine doses to Africa by the end of this year. Almost all African countries have signed up.

The faster the rollout, the quicker African economies and societies can bounce back.

Unfortunately, the current situation is grave indeed. Africa suffered its 100,000th registered death from Covid-19 on 18 February – and according to an article that appeared the same week in the BMJ, a leading medical journal, the real figure may be significantly higher. Another medical journal, The Lancet, noted in March that “Covax is wholly unequipped to resolve many of the most pressing threats to its mission”. Covax, then, will need to raise its game. To make this happen, everyone who can contribute, should contribute.

Health workers prepare to receive their first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine at the National Hospital Abuja, Nigeria.
Health workers prepare to receive their first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine at the National Hospital Abuja, Nigeria. (Photo: Kola Sulaimon/AFP)

Whilst logistics firms and pharmaceutical partners are obvious candidates to support the rollout, the elections field should also be considered a potential partner in helping Covax overcome some of the pressing challenges it faces. This is particularly true in those countries where the field is not currently organising an impending vote.

Getting Africa vaccinated requires a series of unprecedented efforts in two domains in particular: distribution and counter-disinformation. Here in the elections field, we have a track record of doing both in the very same isolated places that Covax will find it most difficult to reach.

Supporting vaccine distribution

The more comprehensive the ability to get the vaccine out, the more likely that the most vulnerable people can be reached at an earlier stage. A suboptimal rollout will ensure that pockets of the most vulnerable will remain unvaccinated for longer, putting lives at risk.

Yet the elections field has the expertise in regularly reaching the most isolated of localities. Election management bodies typically reach enormous numbers of localities in every African election. Even the most rural areas are on the receiving end of nationwide distribution efforts rapidly delivering ballot papers and election materials to a comprehensive network of polling stations typically designed to be accessible to as many people as possible.

The officials in charge of these efforts have the security expertise, route planning knowledge, local contacts, and procurement understanding to channel this distribution network into supporting the Covax rollout. They are experts in a tried-and-tested means of getting material – and the training that goes with it – from A to B, so will have perspectives they can bring to the table.

Their contributions will depend on the context. If a lack of census records is a barrier to the effective rollout, voter registers might provide a means of advancing the effort. Where the limiting factor is the existence of public medical facilities, why not consider directing the systems and channels typically used to convert public buildings to polling stations to repurposing these same buildings to vaccination clinics.

In addition to being experienced logisticians, election management bodies and their international partners have often painstakingly sought to win the trust of populations over decades-long periods – and trust will have a big role to play in successfully rolling out the vaccination programme.

Supporting counter-disinformation

Disinformation is already posing a serious threat to the ability to roll out vaccinations worldwide.

Twenty-five percent of respondents in a recent pan-African survey deemed that the Covid-19 vaccine would be “unsafe”. As African Business has highlighted, ineffective quack treatments such as steam inhalation have even received the backing of elected leaders. The problems disinformation has posed to past medical interventions in Africa, such as efforts to control Ebola, are a serious cause for concern. Unprecedented internet access across the continent, with all of the potential for disinformation spread that brings, raises the stakes even further.

Here in the elections field, we have cutting-edge, relevant expertise in counter-disinformation. The event of an election tends to galvanise disinformation production. 

What’s more, accounts that spread disinformation relating to one issue – such as for political purposes – are readily repurposed for another. Many of the disinformation networks and avenues we are familiar with will be at high risk of spreading Covid-19 disinformation.

This means we are faced with a ready opportunity to harness our expertise and channels to aid the medical community’s counter-disinformation efforts. This is less about adding to the noise, but instead using our networks and expertise to amplify the voices and messages of qualified medical professionals.

Whether it be civil society efforts to counter electoral misinformation in just about every African country, election commissions often watched by online followings of hundreds of thousands, or political campaign managers who have won the fervent trust of their activist networks, the election field’s collective capacity to refute false information about the vaccine is enormous.

Elected leaders themselves have a special responsibility to stick to the facts – and political opposition leaders have opportunities to use their leverage to hold leaders to account if they participate in the spread of misinformation.

Where widespread dissemination of key information is required, the vast activist-led election campaign infrastructures typically mobilised by political parties may be repurposed to help get this lifesaving information out.

It is precisely at this time of crisis that we must all think beyond the realm of our usual jobs and ask what we can do to serve one of the most important logistical efforts of our time. Our ongoing work to keep the wheels of democracy turning should now be supplemented by an innovative and forward-thinking conversation about the role we can play in the vaccine rollout to get the wheels of African societies and economies turning once again at full throttle.

We in the elections field, therefore, should proactively extend a hand of friendship to the officials and medical professionals responsible for delivering the vaccination programme. We bring one, simple message: if you think we can indeed help, we stand ready to assist.

 Ben Graham Jones is a British consultant on electoral assistance, election observation methodology, and disinformation mitigation. 

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