What you need to know:
- The relationship between vaccines and religion has always been controversial. Often, faith leaders are on the frontline of vaccine acceptance or rejection.
- Cardinal Elias Odhiambo Komenya says religious leaders have been sidelined in the nationwide Covid-19 campaign.
He stands tall in his white cassock, ready to introduce himself during a training session that is expected to help promote Covid-19 vaccines.
Cardinal Elias Odhiambo Komenya of Homa Bay Legion Maria of African Church Mission archdiocese is here to give his views on the vaccine uptake.
He begins by reiterating the importance of vaccines and every Kenyan, especially the elderly like him, must have the shots.
Cardinal Komenya, who is also the Co-ordinator of the Ecumenical Centre for Justice and Peace and who received his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine in June, has played a significant role in the campaign.
He has organised several civic education gatherings, especially in Kisumu county, where he operates most of the time.
But though he fully supports the drive, he is also of the opinion that religious leaders have not been fully equipped with information on the pandemic and vaccines.
According to the cardinal, religious leaders have been sidelined in the nationwide Covid-19 campaign.
“The fight against HIV/Aids largely succeeded because faith leaders and organisations were involved. We have not fully participated in the campaign against the global coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
“It is very difficult for a religious leader to go round villages telling people to take a vaccine that he or she knows little about.”
Mr Collins Angila, 32, a leader of a youth economic empowerment programme in Kisumu, represents a category of individuals who are not fully convinced about getting the vaccine as he has not heard the message from the people he trusts most – his religious leader.
“There are very many activities in the mainstream media, but nothing is happening at grassroots. I have not heard enough from my pastor on the importance of the coronavirus vaccine,” he said.
“Our religious leaders have been very vocal about polio and other vaccines but their silence in the present drive has made some of us develop cold feet. There is suspicion and mistrust.”
The relationship between vaccines and religion has always been controversial. Often, faith leaders are on the frontline of vaccine acceptance or rejection.
Many use their faith as the basis of arguments in favour or against particular vaccines.
According to a review titled “Religion, Faith and Spiritual Influences on HIV-Prevention Activities published in June last year, approximately 84 per cent of the world’s population confesses to being religiously affiliated.
It showed that more than half of the people in the review reported a positive/protective association between religion, faith and spirituality and HIV-prevention.
Amref Africa Kenya Country Director, Meshack Ndirangu, believes religious leaders command a huge following and are fit to rally communities into having faith in vaccines.
“They are better placed to easily influence behaviour and perception. They play a significant role in rallying the community into having faith in Covid-19 vaccines by promoting awareness, and clarifying myths and misconceptions,” Dr Ndirangu said.
“They can also do this by being among the first to take the vaccines in order to inspire confidence among believers in the drugs.”
It is for these reasons that religious leaders were in a list of people invited by Amref, through the Coalition for Health Research and Development, to participate in the training for community champions picked to help promote Covid-19 vaccine awareness and uptake back in September.
While religious leaders have come out to call for the adherence to the Covid-19 rules and guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health, they have largely been silent on vaccination.
National Council of Elders treasurer, Sheikh Ahmed Set, said the clergy have not been fully involved in the campaign, making it difficult to convince ordinary Kenyans go for the vaccine.
“Religious leaders and faith communities in general should access accurate information about the vaccine and combat misinformation. Once well-informed, they will lead by example,” Sheikh Set said.
Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) chairman, Hassan ole Naado, said religious leaders have been attempting to be involved in the campaigns to no avail.
He added that the Covid-19 vaccine matter has attracted negative publicity across the world.
“The global propaganda has trickled down to the community level,” he said.
Mr Naado added that religious leaders must be fully involved in the campaign if it is to succeed.
“What is happening is the opposite of other drives like polio vaccination where the faces of religious leaders have been successfully used,” the Supkem chief said.
In April, the Interfaith Forum and the African Consortium for Law and Religion Studies held a webinar dubbed “The Role of Religion and Faith-Based Communities in the Covid-19 Vaccination Efforts in Africa”.
There were discussions on the parts the clergy and communities play in propelling or impeding vaccination efforts across the continent.
Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics, Kenya, chief executive Stephen Anyenda, said with misconception, misinformation and disinformation surrounding the vaccine, religious leaders are in an ideal position to promote the drugs and spread hope.
“Pulpits and places of worship have to offer an alternative narrative to what is going around on social media. They have to be the first ones to step into the water and take the vaccine,” Rev Anyenda told the webinar.
According to Mr Naado, time has come for a change of strategy.
He said religious leaders must be involved in combating the deadly virus.
“The current programme has mostly involved institutions and professionals at national level, making the process appear elitist,” he said.
“As much as the campaign is scientific, the government and other concerned agencies need to consider the social aspect too. Communities identify themselves with religion.”
But even as religious leaders continue to champion their involvement in the vaccination drive, there are people who feel it is time to address matters of science and medicine in the clergy.
During the webinar, Daleen Raubenheimer-Foot, the technical adviser for Channels of Hope at World Vision South Africa, said a majority of religious leaders do not receive theological training on scientific issues like vaccine research and development, so they do not feel theologically prepared to comment on the matters at hand.
Ms Raubenheimer-Foot said there should be an increase in religious leaders’ knowledge and understanding of their churches, mosques, temples or synagogues and doctrines on medicine to be more prepared in these situations.
“There is a need for increased understanding and interaction between religious leaders and the scientific community. Leading by example through practising what is preached regarding vaccines is important,” she said.
According to Dr Ndirangu, it is true more can be done to strengthen theological training to embrace aspects of science and psychology that are of benefit to congregants.
He gave the example of the role of health in enabling one to fulfil what God destined them, and counselling training so that religious leaders apply proved psychotherapy techniques.
However, he was quick to insist that the clergy provide leadership and support to an array of matters that directly affect communities, hence they need not to necessarily receive in-depth technical training on such.
“What is critical is to have their goodwill and strengthen their capacity by adequately sensitising them on the vaccines in order to obtain their buy-in and allow them to share the right basic information the communities need to know,” the Amref country boss said.
Dr Ndirangu added that plans are in place to involve relevant stakeholders, including religious leaders, elders and other community groups to promote vaccine awareness.
“We have been involved as part of community working group at the beginning of the pandemic in Kenya, but more can be done on vaccination efforts. Religious leaders can directly encourage congregants to go for the vaccine and inviting health experts for guidance,” Dr Ndirangu said.
This piece was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData programme as part of the Data4Covid19 Africa Challenge hosted by l’Agence française de développement (AFD), Expertise France, and The GovLab