Largely empty stadiums could become a feature of this month’s Africa Cup of Nations, which kicks off on Sunday, due mainly to Cameroon’s paltry COVID-19 vaccination rate.
The host nation last month made full vaccination and a negative coronavirus test compulsory for spectators at Africa’s premier soccer tournament.
With scepticism about the vaccines’ safety and importance widespread, the country’s inoculation levels are extremely low – though the lure of live soccer has convinced some fans to set their misgivings aside.
“I have not yet been vaccinated. To be honest, the vaccine is scary,” said Moise Nyomo Ndikwa, a businessman and former professional player in the port city of Douala.
“Some people take the vaccines (and) get headaches… But if it is an obligation, as I love football, I will most certainly take this vaccine to go to the stadium.”
Traditionally one of Africa’s strongest soccer nations, Cameroon are this time viewed as more of an outside bet for a title they have won on five occasions, most recently in 2017.
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Just 2.3% of its more than 26 million people are fully vaccinated, health ministry data shows, even though shots are now widely available and a fourth wave of the coronavirus has taken hold there and across much of Africa.
Doctors and nurses told Reuters they had seen an uptick in vaccinations since the government announced the stadium policy, but from a very low base.
“There was a time when we were vaccinating 10 to 15 people a day,” said Odile Keleu, a nurse administering the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot at a hospital in Douala.
“Since the announcement, we are going to 35, 40, even 50 people vaccinated per day. Most are getting vaccinated to obtain the certificate of vaccination to go to the Africa Cup of Nations.”
Some have yet to be persuaded.
Yannick Doutse, playing in a pick-up match in Douala, said he had dreamed of going to see Cameroon play in the tournament but that the vaccination requirement was a deal-breaker.
“It will mean that a lot of people don’t make it to the stadium because there are not many people who want to be vaccinated,” he said.
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Tournament organisers did not respond to questions about how the policy would affect attendance at the competition, which runs from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6.
Asked about the policy’s impact on vaccination rates, Njoh Andreas Ateke, a government vaccination agency official, said in a text: “People are getting vaccinated more and more.”
Cameroon has recorded over 1,800 coronavirus-related deaths and 109,000 infections since the start of the pandemic, official data shows. It has not reported any cases of the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
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