Yvonne Binda stands in front of the congregation, all dressed in immaculate white robes, and tells them not to believe what they have heard about the COVID-19 vaccines.
“The vaccine is not related to Satanism,” she says. The faithful, members of a Christian apostolic church in Zimbabwe, are not moved. But when Binda, a vaccination activist and member of an apostolic church herself, promises them soap, buckets and masks, enthusiastic cries of “Amen!
Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into Pentecostal doctrine are among the southern African nation’s most skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, with an already strong distrust of modern medicine. Many followers put their faith in prayer, holy water, and anointed stones to ward off or heal disease.
Devotees Binda spoke to in rural Seke sang that they were protected by the Holy Spirit, but at least recognized soap and masks as a defense against the coronavirus. Binda tries to convince them to get the shot as well, and it’s a hard sell.
Congregation leader Kudzanayi Mudzoki had to work hard to persuade his herd to stay and listen to Binda talk about vaccines.
“They usually run away,” he said. “Some were hiding in the bushes.
There has been little detailed research on apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, but UNICEF studies estimate that they are the largest religious denomination with around 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million . Conservative groups adhere to a doctrine requiring followers to avoid medication and medical care and instead seek healing through their faith.
Incorporated into Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHCD) in 1993, the Apostolic Churches cooperate alongside the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe (EFZ), the main Zimbabwe Council of Churches and the Zimbabwe Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“God has given us science and intelligence, in addition to divine intervention in healing,” EFZ Never Muparutsa president told CT. “People should not shy away from vaccines based on 666-style conspiracy theories.”
Tawanda Mukwenga, a Catholic, praised her vaccination as a way to enable her to pray properly. At the cathedral in the capital, Harare, he recently attended his first in-person Sunday mass in 10 months after churches and services were forced online by the pandemic. Zimbabwe has reopened places of worship, although worshipers must be vaccinated to enter.
“Getting the vaccine turned out to be a smart idea,” said Mukwenga, delighted to celebrate mass at the cathedral again.
More than 80 percent of Zimbabweans identify as Christians, according to the national statistics agency, but the contrast in attitudes displayed by apostolic members of Seke and Mukwenga illustrates that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to convincing religious citizens reluctant to get vaccinated. .
While mandates – a blunt “no vaccine, no entry” rule – are the way forward for some, there is a more subtle approach for apostolic groups and other anti-vaccine Pentecostals, in part, but not only. , because they are deeply suspicious of vaccines. in general.
Apostolic groups generally do not have official church premises, and members – banging in the long white robes they wear for services – worship outside in the scrubland or in the hills, in widely distributed locations. Across the country.
Image: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP Photo
This makes gatherings much more difficult to control and health mandates nearly impossible to enforce.
Binda is one of nearly 1,000 members of various religious groups recruited by the Zimbabwean government and UNICEF to try to gently change attitudes towards vaccines within their own churches.
Muparutsa, however, hesitates on this approach.
As vice president of ZHCD, he estimates that 30 to 40 percent of evangelical and majority Christians are “skeptical” about the vaccine, and told CT it was not for him to take sides. He “encourages” Zimbabweans to do as he and his family have done, but will not “promote”.
“It sounds like marketing,” he said. “I don’t preach on vaccines; I preach on Jesus.
Binda, however, is a vaccine evangelist.
“We have to cajole them,” she said of her fellow apostolic churches. “Little by little, they finally accept.
But it’s rarely a quick conversion.
“We accept that the Holy Spirit may not be enough to fight the virus,” said apostolic leader Seke Mudzoki. “We are seriously considering vaccines because others have. But our members have always been wary of injections.
“So for now we need soap, buckets, disinfectants and masks,” he said. “These are the things that will help protect ourselves.”
Churches have taken steps to respond to hesitations in other parts of Africa. The United Methodist Church, whose membership in Africa and Asia is almost equal to those in the United States, plans to use a mass messaging platform to send text messages to cell phones of approximately 32,000 worshipers in Côte d’Ivoire, Congo, Liberia and Nigeria. The initial goal is to dispel misinformation.
“There are quite a few messages centered around reassuring people that the vaccine is safe, that it has been tested,” said Ashley Gish of United Methodist Communications. “The ingredients are safe for humans and won’t make you magnetic – that was a huge problem a lot of people told us.”
Gish said his church plans to send more than 650,000 messages with a “pro-vaccine bias.” But the program will run over a few months in a process of “COVID awareness” and the church is not requiring worshipers to receive the vaccine immediately, she said.
While slow and steady might be the best for dealing with some religious hesitation, the situation is urgent in Africa, which has the lowest vaccination rates in the world. Zimbabwe has fully immunized 15 percent of its population, far better than many other African countries, but still far behind the United States and Europe.
So Binda and her fellow activists are adaptable if it means changing attitudes a little faster.
One problem they have encountered is stigma. Some church members are willing to be vaccinated but do not because they fear being ostracized by their peers and leaders. The phenomenon has led activists to advise the government not to set up mobile clinics in isolated apostolic groups like Seke’s, fearing that a public demonstration of vaccination will do more harm than good.
Instead, immunization campaigners who normally advocate openness sometimes encourage secrecy.
Alexander Chipfunde, an apostolic member and immunization activist who works alongside Binda, told Seke’s followers that there was a way to avoid stigma.
“Go to the hospital, get vaccinated and stay silent,” he told them. “It’s your secret.”
Associated Press editor Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee contributed to this report. Additional reporting by Jayson Casper for CT.