BUKIDNON, Philippines – Public health front-line workers in the hinterland villages of Talakag town in this province managed to beat the cultural apathy toward COVID-19 vaccination among indigenous people.
How? By simply employing good, old-fashioned information, education, and communication strategy.
Higaonon teenagers and their elders sat and waited for their turn to get inoculated at a covered basketball court amid a light rain in the hinterland village of Tikalaan in Talakag town in late February.
Strategically placed around the court were several posters promoting COVID-19 vaccination in the Higaonon dialect.
“I am not afraid,” said 12-year-old Nicole as she waited for her turn to get a jab while holding a bag of potato fritters.
Her elder sister Gloria said Nicole was the last in their family of six to get inoculated against COVID-19.
Fearing the unknown, the whole family was reluctant at first about the COVID-19 vaccines, but they had a change of mind as soon as they saw their Higaonon leaders getting vaccinated.
“We saw posters of our leaders telling us that vaccination is good for us. We heard they did not get sick. We were persuaded,” Gloria said.
All around outlying and predominantly Higaonon villages of Tikalaan, Indulang, Lantud, and San Rafael are tarpaulins and posters used to reach out to villagers and explain to them in simple terms and their language what the vaccination program is all about.
“Magpabakuna para luwas sa alan ha miyembro hu pamilya,” read a message on a 6×10 tarp beside the highway leading to Tikalaan village. (Get vaccinated so that your family will be safe.)
One non-governmental organization, Peace Crops, has been providing all the tarps, posters, and other information materials for the four Higaonon villages.
The NGO also circulated komiks, exhorting everyone to get jabbed.
The information materials, written in Higaonon, became valuable tools in curbing vaccine hesitancy among the Higaonons in Talakag town.
Nurse Lourdes Tinoy, Talakag town health officer, said vaccination hesitancy was high among the Higaonon families when the vaccination campaign started a year ago.
“There was a perception that vaccines were against their culture,” Tinoy said.
With the aid of the information materials, the vaccination program of the Talakag municipal government managed to change that perception, and the local government has since been seeing its vaccination rollout succeeding.
So far, the Talakag town government has vaccinated 70% of the 72,027 residents identified as eligible for COVID-19 vaccination as of January, Tinoy said.
“It was a slow progress, but when the information campaign went full blast, more villagers turned up at the vaccination centers,” Tinoy said.
Edgar Gamat, a village councilor in Tikalaan, said he was apprehensive too in 2021 because of the misinformation he read on social media. (For Rappler’s fact checks on COVID-19 and vaccines, visit this page.)
Gamat, himself a Higaonon, recalled that not one of the 10 members of the Tikalaan barangay council dared to volunteer to be the first to get inoculated.
“We thought we would die if we get vaccinated,” said Gamat, laughing.
Their perception changed after seeing their barangay health workers receiving jabs. And when they saw none of them died, several village officials started lining up to get theirs, he said.
He said an order from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) that mandated barangay officials to receive vaccine shots also helped in persuading other officials to get jabbed.
Gamat admitted that he feared the needle. “I kept looking at it, and I just closed my eyes,” he remembered.
Today, all of them in the Tikalaan barangay council are fully vaccinated and are looking forward to their booster shots.
Peace Crops president Robert de la Serna said the vaccination campaign information materials they used were effective because they used the Higaonon dialect and tribal leaders as role models.
“We found out that Lumad residents were able to relate quickly when they saw their leaders promoting vaccination. It changed their negative perception toward the vaccines quickly,” De la Serna said.
Peace Crops was given funding by an international aid agency to design a communication strategy to counter vaccine hesitancy among the Lumad in Bukidnon.
“We started by conducting an FGD (focus group discussion) among the Lumad leaders and barangay officials,” De la Serna said.
From these meetings, the NGO learned that the vaccine hesitancy among the Higaonon was not just rooted in their cultural beliefs but mainly as a result of disinformation, including false information they heard on radio and watched on TV.
He said the younger Higaonon, who had internet access in the villages, were misled by fake news on social media.
“We decided we had to counter the disinformation and fake news using a good information, education, and communication strategy,” De la Serna said.
The NGO also decided to use influential Higaonons to help bring the messages of change to the communities.
“Our good examples were the barangay health workers and Higaonon leaders,” De la Serna said.
At the covered court in front of the Tikalaan barangay court, a stream of children, ages 12 years and older, lined up to be vaccinated by medical front liners.
Eugenio Borreta, a member of the Talakag Inter-Agency Covid Task Force and head of the vaccination team in Tikalaan, said they were glad that vaccine hesitancy among the Higaonon residents was nearly gone, thanks to the information campaign.
“The families are bringing their children to us, unlike before when they were very hesitant,” Borreta said.
He gave assurances that the municipal government has enough vaccines from the Bukidnon provincial health office to accommodate all the children and those coming in for their second shots. Bukidnon gets the vaccines from the Department of Health regional office in Cagayan de Oro. – Rappler.com
Froilan Gallardo is a Mindanao-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship. This story is supported by a grant from Oxfam Pilipinas.