Promoting COVID-19 vaccination in the Bangsamoro Region

Addressing misinformation and vaccine hesitancy

Jacques Gimeno
An adult receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine administered by health workers
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Rosa May Maitem
15 December 2021

Saida Diocolano-Ali and Nuriel Huda Haron just wrapped up an urgent planning session with the Ministry of Health (MOH) for the National Vaccination Days (NVD) campaign. Despite their grueling schedule, the women gamely sat with UNICEF to discuss how the Bangsamoro Region is coping nearly two years into the pandemic.

"In everything we do as health workers, information officers, we ask guidance from God," Saida says after a warm welcome. At 49, she is an 11-year veteran in MOH who leads the Communications Management Unit and Health Promotion Unit.

Their excitement for the NVD was infectious, and understandably so. It was the government’s most ambitious COVID-19 undertaking to vaccinate 9 million people in just three days, from November 29 to December 1, 2021. The women were hoping to increase the number of fully vaccinated people in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) at just 324,246 (11%) of the 2.9 million target.

UNICEF staff members pose with health workers
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Jacques Gimeno
UNICEF meets with Bangsamoro Ministry of Health (MOH) partners during their preparation for the National Vaccination Days scheduled on November 29 to December 1, 2021. From left to right: UNICEF C4D Officer Amina Rafia Lim, MOH Information Officers Saida Diocolano-Ali and Nuriel Huda Haron, and UNICEF Consultant Rosa May Maitem.

Both point to misinformation for the low turnout. “Because we are mostly Muslim here, many people were against the vaccines – they believe it’s haram (forbidden in Islam),” says Nuriel, a 28-year-old assistant information officer.

The Bangsamoro Darul Ifta, the Islamic Advisory Council, would later issue a ruling stating that the vaccines are halal (permissible). In a show of solidarity, the Chief Minister of BARMM, the Muslim Religious Leaders, and other officials got vaccinated to reassure people that they were safe. 

Health workers conducting an information session on COVID-19 vaccines at a community gathering
Health Organization for Mindanao/2021
Health workers of Sibutu, Tawi-Tawi, conduct social mobilization as part of risk communication and community engagement activities in their respective barangays (villages) as one of their initiatives to increase awareness on the importance of COVID-19 vaccination.

Fighting misinformation with partners

The misinformation was not lost on Jorjani Sinsuat, 25, and Aladin Ido, 29, officers at the Bangsamoro Information Office (BIO). Lacking skills and proper equipment, they felt lost when it all started. "We're like an unfinished bridge, and then an earthquake suddenly strikes," Jorjani says. "That’s how it felt like for us."

Nevertheless, the men worked with what they had with support from UNICEF and the Government of the United Kingdom (UK). "When we came back to the office, there was already a strategy for our COVID-19 communication plan," Aladin recalls.

"UNICEF and BIO were really [working] hand in hand," Jorjani adds. "The UK and UNICEF gave us all the technical support we needed – from the materials, the equipment to hiring extra staff, conducting programmes, advertisements, and collaterals."

The partnership reached not only the cities, but also distant islands.

UNICEF staff members with Bangsamoro Information Office staff members
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Jacques Gimeno
Bangsamoro Information Office (BIO) Officers show UNICEF around their new office at the BARMM Complex in Cotabato City. From left to right: UNICEF consultant Arnold Romero, BIO Officers Jorjani Sinsuat and Aladin Ido, and UNICEF C4D Officer Amina Rafia Lim.

Located in Southern Philippines, BARMM has an estimated population of 4.4 million as of 2020. Although a relatively small population, they are widely dispersed in islands that are among the most difficult areas to reach.

Because MOH and BIO could not always be physically present in the islands of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa), UNICEF and the UK have been supporting an information officer for each island to step up outreach activities.

"UNICEF was with MOH all the way. We were able to reach BaSulTa with their help," Saida says, recalling their two-week mission in Sulu to reach the indigenous group Badjao. For communities like this, MOH relies on the diligent barangay health workers. Like their counterparts in the cities, they benefit from the on-site training and materials supported by the UK-UNICEF partnership.

Health workers attending a training session
Health Organization for Mindanao/2021
Health Staff from Tipo-Tipo, Basilan, conduct roll-out training on risk communication and community engagement for Barangay (Villages) Health Workers and other frontliners.

Moving ahead and staying strong

When asked to reflect on their work, Saida, Nuriel, Jorjani and Aladin share that they can now reach more people through their websites and social media. They have also become the trusted authorities for everything COVID-19.

But ever cautious about wasting their gains, they emphasize that improving the other sectors – alongside health and information – is imperative if they want to see BARMM overcome the pandemic.

A UNICEF staff member speaks to a health worker
UNICEF Philippines/2021/Jacques Gimeno
UNICEF C4D Officer Amina Rafia Lim discusses the preparations for the National Vaccination Days with Ministry of Health Information Officer Saida Diocolano-Ali.

As of 8 December 2021, following the NVD, BARMM reported that 388,714 have been fully vaccinated, an increase of 20 per cent. Although they hoped for more, a small increase is still a win. “In Islam, we are told that whatever happens, we should not be discouraged,” Aladin says humbly. “God has a reason for making something happen.”