SEKE, Zimbabwe (AP) – Yvonne Binda stands outside a church congregation, all dressed in crisp white robes, and tells them not to believe what they’ve heard about the COVID-19 vaccines.
“The vaccine is not related to Satanism,” she says. The faithful, members of a Christian apostolic church in the southern African nation of 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 most skeptical in Zimbabwe of COVID-19 vaccines, with an already strong distrust of modern medicine. Many devotees put their faith in prayer, holy water, and anointed stones to ward off or heal disease.
Worshipers Binda spoke to in rural Seke sang of being 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 too – and it’s a tough 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, some are hiding in the bushes,” he said.
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.
Conversely, Tawanda Mukwenga, another Zimbabwean cleric, hailed her vaccination as a way to enable her to pray properly. Mukwenga recently attended mass at the Roman Catholic cathedral in the capital, Harare, his first in-person Sunday Mass in 10 months after the pandemic forced churches and online services to shut down. 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.
Over 80% of Zimbabweans identify as Christians, according to the national statistics agency, but the contrast in attitudes displayed by members of Seke Apostolic and Mukwenga means there is no one-size-fits-all solution to convincing citizens religious hesitant to get vaccinated.
While warrants – a direct no vaccine, no rule of entry – are the way forward for some, there is a more subtle approach for Pentecostal apostolic and anti-vaccine groups, in part, but not only, because that they are deeply suspicious of vaccines.
Apostolic groups generally do not have local and official church members, banging in the long white robes they wear for services, worshiping outdoors in the scrubland or in the hills, in widely distributed locations Across the country.
This makes gatherings much more difficult to control and warrants almost 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 smoothly change attitudes towards vaccines within their own churches.
“We have to cajole them,” Binda said of his apostolic church mates. “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, based in the United States, plans to use a mass messaging platform to send text messages to the cellphones of approximately 32,000 worshipers in Cote d’Ivoire, Congo, Liberia and in Nigeria. The initial goal is to dispel misinformation.
“There are quite a few messages centered on 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, Gish said.
Although slowness and regularity 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.
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.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.