COVID-19 Vaccines: Religious Perspectives And Vaccine Hesitancy II

By Sekyen Dadik

“I was one of the first to take the vaccine in Katsina, some people at home kept asking why I took the vaccine but it boils down to your ability to know what is real and what is fake and your ability to decipher what is happening around the world”.

Naufal Ahmad took the bold step to take the first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine amidst fears and concerns raised by family and friends.

He is a Youth Advocate and Peacebuilder from Katsina state in Northwest Nigeria.

He said “I took the vaccine and my decision was informed by the fact that I am social media literate; I know how to find my way around what is real and what is fake, so I was not influenced by the scepticism that surrounds the vaccines.

Religious stance, indeed plays a major role in people’s vaccine adherence, as was the case with Naufal who said “What also gave me a lot of boost of confidence is the fact that some religious leaders in my community took it first and they started promoting and encouraging people to take it so it was a boost for me.

Regrettably, not all youths will be as fortunate as Naufal to be exposed to perspectives that promote vaccines or knowledgeable enough to decipher COVID-19 misinformation (that is false information one spreads believing it is true) or disinformation (false information that one spreads even though they know it is false with the intention of misleading the public) on social media.

Misinformation driven by some clerics has become one of the major reasons why a majority of people are refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine even when it is available, a situation known as vaccine hesitancy.

Sadly, these religious leaders falsely believe the disease does not exist, some advance the propaganda that the vaccine is a ploy to reduce Africa’s population while others believe that taking the vaccine is against one’s belief in God.

In a viral video on Karfi TV Youtube, an itinerant preacher popularly known as Malam Bakwana na Yar Mariya, who spoke in Arabic and Hausa, and transcribed in part said “:……“I greet you all my fellow Muslims, I am here to address the crises that are upon our nation and the world at large…. our refusal to walk with God is responsible…. right from the beginning, we have had pandemics and people have recovered…together with Jews, Christians….so the issue of the corona is a futile idea and child’s play….the idea of coronavirus is false; it is a huge lie’.

In a second video, he also postulated that coronavirus does not exist. He criticized Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna state for closing down mosques and schools because of Corona which does not exist.

A search on Malam Bakwana reveals his name is Sule Mohammed and he is in a community called Yar Mariya in Kano state North-West Nigeria.

Until he retired from civil service, he served as an Arabic Teacher for 35 years with the Kano State government.

An analysis of the videos shows a wide engagement with the video by social media users in the North. The first video had over 71,000 views as of June 7, 2021 with 288 thumbs up and 28 thumbs down, while the second video had about 40,000 views and over 150 likes.

Most of the comments that followed Yar Mariya’s video in Hausa language show most people in agreement with his position and praying blessings upon him.

Also, a video premiered on YouTube through Apokalupsis Channel on July 12, 2020, titled ‘The Mystery of Corona’, Reverend Chris Okotie said taking the COVID-19 vaccine means going into an agreement with Satan and the vaccine will make the recipient a vampire.

Christopher Oghenebrorie Okotie is a Nigerian televangelist and the pastor of the Household of God Church International Ministries, a Pentecostal congregation in Lagos since February 1987.

The full video, which had almost 400,000 views as of June 2, 2021, had transcripts and videos shared on different mediums, it read in part: “what Bill Gates is doing under the auspices of the United Nations, is to make sure that you receive the food … when you eat the genetically modified organisms…., and you take the vaccine, you’ve entered into communion with Satan….. So, one of the things that the vaccine will make you do, is to become a ‘vampire’, who needs to drink blood for sustenance”.

Nigeria is a highly religious country with different religious faithful holding strongly to their leaders’ perspectives on issues, this is not different with COVID-19 infodemics.

Many of these positions and those not captured here have influenced positively or negatively on responses of people especially youths to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Response from Youths

This reporter spoke to youths across northern Nigerian to gauge their responses based on the religious perspectives they have heard.

Sharing her experience, Grace Maikano a social media marketer and resident of Kaduna said “recently while waiting for a cab I heard an itinerant preacher in a moving vehicle with speakers saying…’ anyone who takes the COVID-19 vaccine will lose his salvation, anyone who takes the COVID-19 vaccine will go to hell’.

“I stood there in shock looking as the vehicle sped past me blaring that information loudly! My first thought was, how did he come about such information, why will he use this means of communication to convey it and then I thought of those that will hear this information and believe it…

“These could be people who follow him and because they know him or they are naïve or they already have doubts and now ‘someone is bold enough to air it out, will believe and finally relay this same information to others that were not there.

“I have not taken the vaccine yet because I believe it is not an obligation and I have heard of one side effect or the other from those vaccinated so I need to prepare myself physically and mentally before taking the shots”, she said.

Idris Mohammed, a Lecturer of Mass Communication in Usmanu Danfodio University Sokoto, said most of the religious leaders in the region believe the vaccine is from the western world and is aimed at reducing the population of Muslim communities; by affecting the fertility in males and females.

But, he said, this is just a conspiracy theory fueled by merchants of fake news, misinformation and disinformation. This can be traced to the wide gap in governance as people no longer trust the government so anything that comes from the government becomes suspicious.

“This misinformation is shared on social media and you see videos gotten from movies being shared as real videos of people reacting badly or dying from taking vaccines thereby derailing the public. But for me, despite these positions I am going to take the vaccine, I had COVID-19 at some point, though I was asymptomatic and did not go through the pains others went through. So I believe it is real and I will take the vaccine anytime soon”, he promised.

For Kaltumi Ahmed, a Public servant in Kaduna, the disease is being overrated by the government for its selfish gain and she would not in any way take the vaccine.

She said, “From what we have seen and heard even from some of our religious leaders, we are not even sure if this disease was created or it was intentionally brought to cause destruction not just to humans but the economy. So there is a lack of trust because we have seen a lot of videos on social media, discussions among leaders where some even make some derogatory statements on how Africa will be used as a sample to test these things.

“This has created doubts in our minds, So I do not see any big deal around the whole hauling about the pandemic. I just feel it is overrated and there is more to it than what we see, what people say and what they want us to believe”.

Response from Religious Leaders:

According to Pastor Lanre Fashanu, who serves with the King of all Kings Church of the Capstone, Kaduna, Nigeria, “I have heard quite a couple of takes by religious leaders most of which is not founded and not balanced, that we a plagued as a nation and the world at large is clear to everybody. This pandemic is real, COVID-19 is real and whatever the origin or the theories behind it, it is still ravaging and killing people, and it is still being studied. So it is real.

“As per the vaccines, I will not say people should not take it, as long as the government have done their clinical test, verified it and are satisfied that it is safe to be injected into a human body, why not?

“There are various vaccines out there, children take vaccines right from when they are a few weeks old, so this is one such vaccine. There is a lot of fear out there but we need our government to assure people it is safe, they should honestly show what steps they have taken to test this vaccine and be sure we are not taking in poison that will harm us in future.

“Once this is in place I will advise that we take the vaccines, it has nothing to do with losing your salvation. Some postulate that it is part of the mark of the beast, 666 but I tell people by the time the Anti-Christ will show true believers would have been raptured, so we have nothing to fear; you will not lose your salvation nor become a vampire; it is unfounded. I have not seen someone become a vampire yet and it is not against scripture to take the vaccination.

Responding also, Imam (Dr) Mohammed Ashafa, Co-Executive Director of Interfaith Mediation Centre, Kaduna Nigeria, said different religious perspectives have been peddled with the emergence of the virus and the introduction of vaccines.

“some see it as the consequence of sin and until we repent and turn from our ways then healing will come, others see it from the angle of conspiracy theories that the vaccines aim to reduce population. Yet others believe the closure of mosques and churches means they are against religion and a manifestation of the end time.

“Religious communities are divided on this issue; within Islam, the Sufi and reformists movement hold different worldviews on the disease, the puritans believe it is nothing and you do not need their drugs but only the power of prayer and fasting as the healing process.

“On the Christian side, you have the voices of the Pentecostal, evangelicals on one side, then the orthodox, conservatives on another and all these inform the questions around the vaccine.

“This has been a difficult challenge for the religious community. Unfortunately, till date, the experts do not have a uniform approach as well. We have a competitive vaccine community with so much political interest being pushed by manufacturing countries.

“These have created a lot of doubts in the minds of so many of our followers. So like the experts, the religious community is also divided, therefore we are currently working on a book titled: ‘Interfaith protocol for prevention of COVID-19 and other epidemics’ which highlights and demystifies some of the myths on COVID-19 and the vaccines.

Expert Speaks:

“The issue of vaccine hesitancy is a major problem for us in the public health field and this is largely shaped by what people believe which consequently shapes their behaviour”, said Dr Daniel Meshak, a Public Health Specialist with the Jos University Teaching Hospital.

Meshak who is also a Consultant Family Physician said, “you could see that religion and culture are the major things that have a major influence on the belief system that people adopt and invariably it will affect their behaviour.

“We have had people also asserting that taking the vaccine shows lack of faith or it is the new world order and 666 coming into play.

“The social media has not helped matters because the distribution of information is now so fast and wide; and when you have respected men of God coming out to say they do not believe in the vaccine, of course, it then has an influence on a lot of people who hold their words in very high esteem and this has influenced a lot of behaviour concerning vaccine hesitancy”.

Meshak said “Vaccine is very important because it fortifies our immunity and enables us to fight disease-causing organisms, usually there are two ways either through the natural way that is allowing the person to be infected with the disease and then the person develops immunity or it could be through an artificial means that is vaccines, in which none dangerous organism of virus or bacteria is introduced into the body and it will trigger an immune reaction and it will be able to build the immune system.

“The essence of a vaccine is that it protects individuals and the population and we have seen in the history of the world how vaccines have saved millions of lives from getting infected with diseases that would have killed them, that is why vaccine remains the best bet for us to return to our normal way of life”.

Conclusion:

Despite the perspectives on COVID-19 vaccines, vaccines according to the World Health Organization remain key in achieving a pandemic free world. With this, it becomes imperative for the government, experts and religious leaders to work together to counter misinformation and address vaccine hesitancy especially among young people who are a part of the key population.

This publication was produced as part of IWPR’s Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme, administered in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN, please visit the ARN site at https://africaresiliencenetwork.com/