Sarangani town fights Lumads’ fears on COVID-19 vaccines

MALUNGON, Sarangani (MindaNews / 04 Dec) – When the vaccination drive against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was rolled out in March this year in this first-class municipality with a predominantly Lumad (Indigenous peoples or IPs) population, Dr. Jec Pane, a member of the Tagakolu IPs, immediately volunteered for screening.

He passed and was among the first residents to get inoculated against the highly-contagious disease.

Tagakolu doctor Jec Pane, chief of clinics of the Sarangani Provincial Hospital in Malungon, Sarangani examines a young patient on November 18, 2021. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

As a doctor, Pane was on top of the priority list of the Philippine government’s COVID-19 vaccination drive. But while getting jabbed was important to this medical frontliner,  he  also wanted to send a clear message to his fellow Lumads to get vaccinated, too.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and scientifically proven effective in fighting the disease,” he told MindaNews.

Pane, chief of clinics of the Sarangani Provincial Hospital in  Malungon, is among at least 200 medical frontliners in the municipality who are fully vaccinated.

He said he experienced no side effects after the first and second doses of the AstraZeneca-manufactured vaccine.

Vaccination hesitancy

With a population of a little over 100,000, Malungon, a landlocked municipality with vast rolling lands suitable for plantation crops such as mango, banana and oil palm, is dominated by Blaans and Tagakolus.

Hesitancy by IP members to get inoculated was very high even before the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive could reach their town, having been bombarded with wrong information from social media, said Pane, who described the vaccination drive in their area as “very challenging.”

The Lumads’ exposure to incorrect information from social media beat the government’s information drive to convince them to get the COVID-19 vaccines, he added.

Young Lumads are glued to a smartphone while waiting for their turn to perform during the 14th Slang Festival on November 18, 2021 in Malungon, Sarangani. The Lumads’ access to the Internet was among the reasons cited for their initial hesitancy to get vaccinated against COVID-19. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

The Lumads have easy access to social media sites as internet connection is accessible even in the mountains and this accessibility has been cited as a factor for their hesitance to be vaccinated.

But the preaching of their religious leaders, mostly from Protestant churches, made the situation even more challenging.

Several pastors have been campaigning against getting the COVID-19 vaccines, feeding into the fears that the Lumads initially obtained from the Internet, mostly from Facebook, Pane stressed.

He said the Lumads also believed that “they would die if they get vaccinated,” based on reports produced by dubious news media portals that they believed without questioning.

Pane noted the Lumads were made to believe, from the internet and ill-informed pastors, that the COVID-19 vaccine contains microchips that will mark them as members of the “666,” which some Christians believe signifies the devil or the persona of the anti-Christ.

Public health education

To address the COVID-19 hesitancy among the Lumads, Datu Edmund Pangilan, provincial chieftain of the indigenous people’s political structure, said they have been going around the town’s 31 villages to present the communities the right information on COVID-19 vaccines.

He noted that the local government unit, headed by Mayor Maria Theresa Constantino, a lawyer, has thrown her full support to convince Lumads in far-flung areas to be vaccinated.  The mayor had even joined sorties in remote areas to raise awareness on the government’s vaccination drive.

Lumad leaders in Malungon, Sarangani perform a ritual during the 14th Slang Festival on November 18, 2021. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

To further convince their members to get vaccinated, Pangilan said most of the 60 tribal leaders in Malungon have been fully vaccinated.

“We, the tribal leaders, have to be their models. By getting the COVID-19 vaccines, we are showing them that we are the living proof that it is safe to humans,” he told MindaNews.

“The COVID-19 vaccine will strengthen our immunity against the virus from getting worse,” he added.

Pangilan said vaccine hesitancy among the IPs, especially the elderly, has been “intrinsic” in their nature given that they reside in what is referred to as GIDA (Geographically Isolated and Disadvantaged Areas), which refers to poor communities separated from mainstream society and seldom reached by basic government services.

Vaccinate in communities

Edmundo Cejar, a farmer-businessman from Barangay Nagpan here, said several pastors have been strongly encouraging their predominantly Lumad flock, to reject the COVID-19 vaccine.

He added that the pastors preach to their members to trust prayers and seek protection from Jesus Christ and not on the vaccines.

Monard Galgo, the Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative in Malungon town, said the local government is bringing the COVID-19 vaccination drive to remote communities to get more IPs vaccinated.

But the high cost of transportation is also among the reasons behind the low turnout for vaccination.

It takes 600 pesos per person, one way, to get to the poblacion from the last mile-community of Barangay Kinam.

Galgo said they have visiting all their villages to educate their fellow IPs “on the need to get protected against COVID-19.”

Influenced by misinformation and conspiracy theories, hesitancy against COVID-19 vaccination has been reported not only in the Philippines, but also in other countries such as the United States and Thailand.

Pangilan, who was jabbed with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, said imparting proper information and involving respected leaders and medical workers in the campaign are important in convincing fellow IPs to get the jab.

The Janssen vaccine is sent usually to remote areas as it requires only a single dose for a person to be fully vaccinated, compared with other brands that require two doses scheduled at least three weeks apart.

Pangilan said Lumad leaders have conducted dialogues with pastors of Protestant churches in the town to enlighten them on the scientifically-proven benefits of COVID-19 vaccines.

Changing mindsets

“Fortunately, these pastors, little by little, are changing their mindsets and have in fact gotten themselves inoculated against COVID-19,” Pangilan said.

Religious leaders who have been enlightened about the safety of the vaccines are now echoing it during church services. Amplifying the message helps the local government speed up the vaccination drive among the IPs down to the grassroots level.

Pangilan said that with the right information and with the vaccination drive brought down to the communities,  there should be no excuse not to be vaccinated.

Based on the latest data from the Malungon Information Office, Barangay Poblacion leads the town with the highest number of fully- vaccinated residents at 32.32 percent while the lowest is Barangay Blaan at 4.26 percent.

The data was published five days before the national COVID-19 vaccination drive from 29 November to 1 December.

Isagani Palma, municipal information officer, said there was a “good turnout” from the IP communities.

The Tagakolu  doctor, Pane, said that with the continued awareness campaign on COVID-19 vaccination,  including using radio to reach remote areas, the local government is confident that the number of hesitant Lumads will decline.

Pane said the local health center has also been accepting walk-in clients who want to be vaccinated.

“Getting vaccinated is the key to curb the spread of COVID-19. To my fellow tribal members, let us all get vaccinated to protect ourselves and our families from this highly-contagious and deadly disease,” he stressed.

“Together, let us stop the COVID-19 pandemic from spreading in our communities,” the doctor appealed. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)