Why Africa’s faith leaders hold the key to dispelling vaccine doubts

·7-min read
A Fulani Muslim man prays during his pilgrimage in front of Usman dan Fodio tomb, Sokoto, Sokoto State, Nigeria (AFP via Getty Images)
A Fulani Muslim man prays during his pilgrimage in front of Usman dan Fodio tomb, Sokoto, Sokoto State, Nigeria (AFP via Getty Images)

On a Sunday evening in early June, popular Nigerian mega-church pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, responded to a question from one of his followers who was worried about losing his job for refusing to take the Covid-19 vaccine, as required by all staff at his workplace.

Pastor Oyakhilome was addressing the issue in a special service that takes place on the first Sunday of every month, when his millions of followers around the world log in to hear the ‘message of the month’. It was streamed live from Lagos, where his Christ Embassy church has its headquarters and his meetings often pack out stadiums. In many of his sermons over the past year, which are posted on YouTube, Pastor Oyakhilome has expressed scepticism about the vaccines. And in a clip that went viral, he berated African leaders for waiting for vaccine handouts from the Western world, instead of working to develop their own.

“You quit,” was Pastor Oyakhilome’s blunt answer to his follower’s query. “Drop it and go…Don’t accept it. You are a child of God. Let no one intimidate you.”

Four out of every 10 Nigerians are unwilling to take the COVID-19 vaccine even when they become available, according to a recent survey by Nigeria’s NOI polls. Globally, 31 doses of the vaccine have been administered per 100 people, but in Africa it is about 3 doses per 100 people and in Nigeria just 1.1.

The slow rate of vaccination is mostly due to limited supplies and distribution problems such as the lack of health infrastructure and staff. But there are also fears that vaccine hesitancy is playing a role, with a number of African countries, including Nigeria, South Sudan, and Malawi, unable to use their allocation of vaccines before the expiration dates.

Without the cooperation of the continent’s religious leaders, when vaccine supplies do ramp up, the rollouts in countries like Nigeria are likely to fail.

Pastor Taribo West preaches in his church in Lagos, on January 12, 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)
Pastor Taribo West preaches in his church in Lagos, on January 12, 2020 (AFP via Getty Images)

An Afrobarometer survey published last year showed that more than nine in ten Africans identify with a religion. A majority say they are Christians, at 56 per cent, while one in three self-identify as Muslim. More than 40 per cent said they had contacted a religious leader at least once during the previous year, and faith leaders were more widely trusted than any other group of public leaders.

Omolara Olayinka, a 50-year-old banker in Lagos, and a member of Oyakhilome’s Christ Embassy church said she would be guided by her pastor: “I always listen to my pastor when he speaks. I listen to his advice. He has been my pastor for so many years and I have so much faith in him. The Bible talks about us following our leaders and imitating them as they imitate Christ,” she said.

“My pastor has been teaching about why a Christian doesn’t need to take the Covid vaccine and I believe him and that is why I am not taking it.”

As new cases of the coronavirus trend upwards across Africa, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned last week that the continent was on the brink of a disastrous third wave of disease.

“As we close in on 5 million cases and a third wave in Africa looms, many of our most vulnerable people remain dangerously exposed to Covid-19,” said the WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti last week.

“Vaccines have been proven to prevent cases and deaths, so countries that can, must urgently share COVID-19 vaccines. It’s do or die on dose sharing for Africa.”

But when the vaccines do arrive, the public must be ready to accept them and engaging religious leaders is crucial to this effort, say experts. What happens in Africa’s most populous nation Nigeria could have ripple effects across the continent.

For Nigeria’s Muslims, who make up just over half of the population, attitudes to the vaccine have been influenced by a call from Saudi Arabia for all Haj pilgrims to Mecca to prove they had been inoculated against Covid-19.

“Saudi Arabia is recommending the Covid-19 vaccine for would-be pilgrims,” said Hauwa Yusuf, a media consultant in her 40s who is based in the capital Abuja. “No pilgrim gets on the plane without proof of being vaccinated.”

Beyond the general suspicions over the speed of the creation of vaccines against Covid-19 and doubts about its effectiveness, Africans have other reasons to be wary.

The Western philanthropic organisations that promote the use of vaccines for all kinds of diseases have for years pushed for population control in Africa. The same people who have been advocating population control now want to save lives. For many sceptics, Western involvement reeks of a clandestine attempt to control population, leading to rumours that the vaccines sent to Africa may be designed to reduce fertility.

And a video that went viral early in the pandemic showed some French doctors discussing how it would be easy to test vaccines in Africa without the usual constraints imposed in other parts of the world.

Similar rumours trailed the rollout of polio vaccines in Nigeria’s majority Muslim north in the 1990s and early 2000s. There were suspicions that the vaccine was laced with infertility hormones as part of a US-led plot to reduce the Muslim population. Islamic clerics called on parents not to allow their children to be given vaccine and the government was forced to suspend the immunisation campaign, leading to an unprecedented number of polio infections. Even before the rollout of the polio vaccine, suspicions about Western health interventions were circulating in the region after 11 children died in a Pfizer clinical trial during a meningitis epidemic in the northern state of Kano in 1996.

Fulani Muslim men pray in Masallacin Shehu Mosque, Sokoto, Sokoto State, Nigeria (AFP via Getty Images)
Fulani Muslim men pray in Masallacin Shehu Mosque, Sokoto, Sokoto State, Nigeria (AFP via Getty Images)

Around that time, Nigeria accounted for more than half of all global cases of polio. Campaigners had to go beyond political and health authorities to partner with religious leaders and Muslim clerics invited to workshops held by the Nigerian government, where misconceptions about the vaccine were aired and cleared.

The Sultan of Sokoto, the highest ranking traditional and spiritual leader in northern Nigeria, publicly declared the polio vaccine safe and personally led vaccination drives. Saudi Arabia asked for proof of vaccination for Kano travellers on Haj to Mecca, which cast further doubt on the assertion that polio vaccine was part of a religious crusade against Muslims. In 2020, Nigeria finally became the last African country to be declared free from polio.

Dr Chizoba Wonodi, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the founder of Women Advocates for Vaccine Access said: “Religious leaders are critical. They influence a large section of the population. In Nigeria, about 99 percent of respondents in our survey said they are religious, that they consider themselves very religious, so you know that whoever is their religious leader will have a major influence on them.”

“For Covid, we are seeing a different pattern,” she said. “In Nigeria previously, hesitance for childhood vaccination was more in the north and the government had established strong relationships with Muslim religious leaders and that has really paid off over time…Right now, we are seeing more problems in the (mostly Christian) south. All the surveys are showing that the hesitancy is highest in the south.”

Some Nigerian Christian leaders have publicly encouraged their followers to take the Covid vaccine. Matthew Ashimolowo, the founder of Kingsway International Christian Centre in London, shared photos of his own vaccination on social media.

“I have taken the vaccination today. Very simple and quick. I encourage all the BAME (Black, Asian and ethnic minority) community to take the vaccination. Save lives. Stay Safe. Protect yourselves. We need to do this. Let’s go,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

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