SEKE, Zimbabwe – Yvonne Binda stands before a religious congregation, all dressed in pristine white robes, and tells them not to believe what they have heard about COVID-19 vaccines.
“The vaccine is not related to Satanism,” she says. The faithful, members of an apostolic Christian church in the South African nation of Zimbabwe, are unmoved. But when Binda, a vaccine campaigner and herself a member of an apostolic church, promises them soap, buckets and masks, enthusiastic cries of “Amen!
Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into Pentecostal doctrine are among the most skeptical in Zimbabwe 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 cure disease.
Worshipers Binda spoke to in rural Seke chanted that they were protected by the holy spirit, but at least acknowledged soap and masks as a defense against the coronavirus. Binda tries to convince them to get vaccinated too – and that’s a tough sell.
Congregation leader Kudzanayi Mudzoki had to work hard to persuade his flock to stay and listen to Binda talk about vaccines.
“They were usually running away, some were hiding in the bushes,” he said.
There has been little detailed research on apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, but UNICEF studies estimate it to be the largest religious denomination with around 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million. of inhabitants. Conservative groups adhere to a doctrine requiring followers to avoid drugs and medical care and instead seek healing through their faith.
Conversely, Tawanda Mukwenga, another religious Zimbabwean, hailed his vaccination as a way to allow him to practice his religion properly. Mukwenga recently attended mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in the capital, Harare, her first in-person Sunday mass in 10 months after the pandemic shuttered churches and forced services online. Zimbabwe has reopened places of worship, although worshipers must be vaccinated to enter.
“Getting vaccinated turned out to be a good idea,” said Mukwenga, delighted to be celebrating mass again at the cathedral.
More than 80% of Zimbabweans identify as Christian, according to the national statistics agency, but the contrast in attitudes displayed by members of Seke Apostolic and Mukwenga means there is no single solution to convince religious citizens hesitant to get vaccinated.
While mandates — a straightforward no-vaccine, no-entry rule — are the way to go for some, there is a more subtle approach for apostolic Pentecostal and other anti-vaccine groups, in part, but not only because they are deeply suspicious of vaccines.
Apostolic groups usually have no official church premises and members, striking in the long white robes they wear for services, worship outdoors in scrubland or hills, in widely spread locations Across the country.
This makes gatherings much harder to monitor and warrants nearly impossible to enforce.
Binda is one of about 1,000 members of various faith groups recruited by the Zimbabwean government and UNICEF to try to gently change attitudes towards vaccines within their own churches.
“We have to cajole them,” Binda said of fellow apostolic faithful. “Little by little, they end up accepting. »
But it’s rarely a quick conversion.
“We accept that the Holy Spirit may not be enough to deal with the virus,” Seke Apostolic leader Mudzoki said. “We are seriously considering vaccines because others have. But our members have always been wary of injections.
“So right now we need soap, buckets, sanitizers and masks,” he said. “These are the things that will help protect us.”
Churches have taken steps to respond to hesitation in other parts of Africa. The United Methodist Church, based in the United States, plans to use a mass messaging platform to send text messages to the cellphones of about 32,000 followers in Ivory Coast, Congo, Liberia and Nigeria. The initial goal is to dispel misinformation.
“There’s quite a bit of messaging centered around reaffirming for people that the vaccine is safe, that it’s 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 concern we heard from a lot of people.”
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 does not require congregants to receive the vaccine immediately, Gish said.
While slow and steady may be preferable to deal with some religious hesitation, the situation is urgent in Africa, which has the lowest vaccination rates in the world. Zimbabwe has fully vaccinated 15% of its population, far better than many other African countries but still far behind the United States and Europe.
Binda and her fellow activists are therefore adaptable if that means changing attitudes a little faster.
One problem they have encountered is stigma. Some church members are willing to get vaccinated but don’t because they fear being ostracized by their peers and leaders. The phenomenon has led activists to advise the government not to bring mobile clinics to isolated apostolic groups like Seke’s, fearing that a public display of vaccinations could do more harm than good.
Instead, vaccine activists who normally advocate transparency sometimes encourage secrecy.
Alexander Chipfunde, an apostolic member and vaccine activist who works alongside Binda, told Seke worshipers there was a way to avoid the stigma.
“Go to the hospital, get vaccinated and shut up,” he told them. It’s your secret.
Associated Press writer Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.