[Update] Wave of online misinformation leads to vaccine hesitancy in Thailand’s refugee camps

As Thailand struggles to control lingering cases of COVID in the north, many refugees along the Thai-Myanmar border are reluctant to be vaccinated. Misinformation is seeping into the camps. And now, local groups are rushing to spread the truth.

Oo Reh has no intention of getting vaccinated.  The 34-year-old Karreni refugee lives in ‘Camp 1,’  a refugee settlement a two hour drive from Mae Hong Son through dirt roads and rough terrain.

It’s a place where tens of thousands have found themselves living after fleeing decades of conflict in neighboring Myanmar. At one end of Oo Reh’s sprawling camp, the sound of a loudspeaker system echoes in the distance.

The voice announces basic instructions on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But for refugees like Oo Reh, the messaging is not convincing. Instead, he believes that vaccines are ineffective and dangerous.

“More people say now that after you get the Covid-19 vaccine some people will die or become disabled,” Ooh Reh said. “So I do not feel comfortable receiving [the vaccine] and I worry for myself what will be the impact in the future if I do.” 

He added that Chinese made vaccines like Sinovac are particularly suspect, claiming that some in the camps are not interested in taking them anymore.

Although vaccines are beginning to become available in the nine camps on the Thai side of the border where over 100,000 refugees currently live, Ooh Reh said he’s not alone in his skepticism.

It’s unclear how widespread the vaccine hesitancy is in the camps, but health workers are working to combat the anti-vax disinformation that seems to have trickled in.

Refugees in informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 as the camps lack access to full medical facilities and services. General education is low, compounding the vaccine hesitancy. But health workers and organizations working in the camps are rushing to combat bad information with safe messaging.

“There are different perceptions among the refugee community, some of them receive information from outside through their network or social media about the type of vaccines,” said Preeyalak Sataranon with International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian aid organization working in the nine camps.

“The information they receive varies, for example, some believe one type of vaccine is better than another, or some receive myths about the vaccine’s side effects.”

When the pandemic first hit in early 2020, refugees started to experience a range of vulnerabilities. She said that refugees saw restrictions of movement inside their own camps and that lockdown conditions led to limited supplies of basic amenities and food, creating negative impacts on their physical and mental health.

“Some camps faced ongoing outbreaks and significant numbers of confirmed positive cases have been reported,” said Preeyalak.  “Some of the refugees are not keen to cooperate in the surveillance and case detection because they are afraid of being quarantined and isolated.”

Combating misinformation

Although the pandemic is improving throughout the country, it’s critical that a robust vaccine rollout continues uninhibited. But misinformation is creating doubt all over the kingdom.

Lee Meh, a 60-year-old Karreni woman who also lives in one of the Karenni refugee camps, receives information not only from her friends and family, but from Facebook.

“By looking at the media and Facebook we can see what happens to some people who get the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said, alluding to rare cases where people fall ill or develop severe side effects.

“I was scared to death,” Lee Meh added. “Especially when I heard that some people had died after being vaccinated.”

Lee Meh also mentioned that she has heard whispers that the vaccines will cause complications with pregnancy. “I hear some women cannot get pregnant after getting it,” she says about information she read online.

Mobile data is accessible in the camps, but only in some locations and connection is often limited. But for those who have smartphones, platforms like Facebook are hotbeds of disinformation. The applications are easy hubs to breed bad ideas, producing echo chambers where facts about the virus are often distorted.

It’s far from the first time that Facebook has inadvertently disseminated disinformation. It’s truly a global problem running off the rails in developed countries as well.

Facebook, Youtube, and Whatsapp are coming under fire for playing a role in spreading misinformation throughout the globe.  In a recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, researchers found that the ad revenue from disinformation linked pages was estimated at $1.1 billion dollars.

Across the border in neighboring Myanmar, misinformation is running rampant on Facebook and other social media platforms.

“A lot of people in Myanmar don’t trust the vaccines, especially the Chinese ones,” said Nickey Diamond, a Ph.D. candidate in political and legal anthropology at the University of Konstanz, Germany. “It is partly because of what they are reading on Facebook.”

Diamond has been researching the impacts of disinformation in Myanmar for almost a decade. He says it’s a deep problem that needs to be rectified.

“The issue with Facebook is that their AI systems cannot detect disinformation in the Burmese language. It’s not sophisticated enough to distinguish truth from false information.”

He added that often ‘fake news’ contradicts Facebook’s own community guidelines, but bad information stays on the platforms nonetheless. The platform’s algorithms can help create echo chambers where belief becomes entrenched. And because it’s so easy to share problematic material, disinformation spreads and can become widely believed.

Sally Thompson, the executive director at Border Consortium, says local groups are rushing to get out ahead of dangerous online disinformation.“Hesitancy in the refugee camps reflects hesitancy we are seeing in many different settings globally,” Thompson said.

“Internet-based misinformation has circulated in the camps, as well as that conveyed by relatives and friends, and has caused some refugees to be concerned about being vaccinated.

In addition, some refugees have drawn erroneous conclusions from their own observations such as thinking that vaccinations are causing COVID-19 infections because these are happening in a camp at the same time, even though vaccinations actually are mitigating the spread of the virus and reducing deaths.”

Back in the camps, it’s a similar problem made worse by a lack of media literacy. Many refugees receive most of their information about the pandemic from the internet as well, they too struggle to distinguish safe and accurate information from outright lies. 

Yet as Thailand finally begins to widely vaccinate its population, health workers along the border are fighting to overcome this new challenge. They are doing everything they can to get the right message out.

“Health NGOs are working with our risk communication partners to provide clear and accurate information before conducting vaccination campaigns,” said Preeyalak from IRC.

“At present, we are able to provide COVID vaccines for the refugee population of 10,000 people, and the campaign is still ongoing in most camps.”


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