The ‘infodemic’ has affected all religions and denominations: and of course, many atheists are superspreaders of fake news. But if a well-meaning but misinformed religious leader takes a stance on vaccines, in Nigeria, it can affect millions.
Despite many of these rumours starting out as fringe conspiracies in the West, and particularly American conservative groups, many are shared online and repackaged to appeal to ‘African identity’.
Vaccine rejection is one of the few topics that would unite most ultra-orthodox jews, Boko Haram, and a number of Lagos’ megachurches, no major world religious council is opposed to vaccination. Religious leaders from the Vatican to Jerusalem agree that is kosher, halaal, and morally acceptable to take the jab, and indeed are pushing for a fairer distribution of vaccines: and only immunised pilgrims were allowed to Mecca in 2021.
In a world overrun with fake news and conspiracy theories, the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus ushered in a wave of global fear and doubt, especially on coronavirus vaccine. In this report, Jennifer Ugwa writes on how religious leaders’ perspective of the vaccine sways pentecostalist acceptance of the jab.
FOR the second time that cold Sunday morning in her sparsely decorated sitting room in Iba Estate, Ojo, Lagos, Nigeria, Ngozi Obidike, 46, a devoted member of the Assemblies of God Church, emphatically reiterated that she was not going to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Her pastor’s sermon about the jab was not positive – neither was it encouraging.
“Have you not heard what they (pastors) have said about it? Anybody who takes it does so at their own risks. It is part of the sign of end-time,” she said.
Obidike had made her choice and joined the rapidly-increasing number of Pentecostalists saying that the vaccine contradicted their religious beliefs
Just ahead of China’s big Lunar New Year festival in 2020, health experts announced the outbreak of COVID-19, a novel virus similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARs) that led to the death of nearly 800 persons globally between 2002 and 2003.
The virus’ origin is yet to be identified, but it was reported to have first jumped from animal to human in Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, Central China. With 3.5 million deaths, preventive measures and vaccines are the world’s main defence against the virus. However, conspiracy theories and unverified information have created an aversion for the shots even before the arrival of the first COVAX doses in Nigeria.
“What will happen to those who have already taken the vaccines? What will happen to them in five years? Normally, these things(vaccines) will be tested for 10 years.
“Those that are giving you the vaccine do not plan for you to ever again have a normal life. Forget it. The plan is for you to never have a normal life. And this is not a conspiracy theory.”
These were the words of the popular televangelist, Chris Oyakhilome, founder of LoveWorld Incorporated —also known as Christ Embassy— in a live cable broadcast preached in 2020 during the early stages of the outbreak.
Oyakhilome claimed the virus was illusory and the Polymerase Chain Reaction(PCR) test was a fraudulent means to fulfil an inoculation ruse by world governments that would upturn the normalcy of life and Christian activities.
With a population of over 200 million and deep religious roots, where 45.9 per cent of the populace are Christians, 35.3 per cent as Pentecostalists or non-Catholics, the position of religious leaders on some issues often constitute the basis for some citizens’ decision-making.
For a Pentecostal megachurch like Christ Embassy with over 300 branches in Nigeria and an approximate 13 million members globally, the position of the Oyakhilome quickly became a footing for scepticism and distrust for the vaccine.
In Lagos, Sandra Enyinna, a member of Christ Embassy church, said she “won’t take the vaccine for as long as it is not compulsory.”
“If you listen to Pastor Chris’s sermons, he said these things with facts, he has proof and who are we to question how he got them,” she said.
Enyinna, who also acknowledged the possibility of the existence of the virus, said she got ‘healed’ when she contracted the virus by using herbal remedies.
“I have a lot of objections about that vaccines. Why are they not creating vaccines for sickness like Hepatitis B and all of a sudden COVID-19 came, and they already have a vaccine for it and are making it compulsory for people to take,” she said.
A random search using ‘covid’ as a keyword on Yookos, an online social networking platform owned by Oyakhilome exclusively for church members but later expanded to allow public access, revealed over 35 trending hashtags on the App like #covidfiasco #covid19debacle #covidscam #notovacine #chippedvaccine.
Public discussions on Yookos about the virus and vaccine revealed antipathy for the jab and the coronavirus.
“As far as I am concerned it’s (COVID-19) dead when the Man of God declared by the Spirit last year March 27 global day of prayer,” said Tifaglory, a user on Yookos
Another user, identified as ‘ikoso,’ shared a 2011 edition of The Sovereign Independent, a dissolved newspaper alleged to have published controversial opinion pieces and conspiracy theories that were reshared under other trends in support of this belief.
Perhaps, if the disposition of this Pentecostal assembly about the vaccine on Yookos were determined via popular opinions and video contents, a majority—if not all— members of the church might never accept the COVID-19 jab.
Oyakhilome’s sermons on COVID-19 have been fined and criticised and may even rank top on the list of disputed religious leaders’ opinions about the vaccine. However, he is not the only member of the clergy who believe there is a sinister motive to COVID-19.
Christopher Okotie is another influential televangelist and pastor who claims there are conspiracy agenda underfoot and says that Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft Foundation, is “the protagonist of everything(Coronavirus) we see today.”
In a 15-minute video on Youtube, which he titled ‘The COVID-19 Mystery,’ Okotie claimed the vaccine’s introduction was “an attempt to copy the pattern of the communion” by the propagators of evil.
The video has over 1759 views.
Conspiracy theories and doubts on the origin of the virus aside, rapid development and side effects of the vaccines are also reasons for apprehension by believers in Pentecostal circles who spoke with this journalist.
In a phone interview, Bola Oyefolu, a Professor of Virology with the Department of Microbiology at Lagos State University, said the distrust for the vaccine was not unfounded as new variants indicated that the virus epitope or antigenic determinant predictions were incomplete.
“There is more to this than the eye can see, and I don’t understand why they are producing the vaccine and making it mandatory for people to take it,” said Oyefolu.
“It is not the best to roll out a vaccine that is not totally protective. A vaccine should be all-encompassing in respect to what the pathogen could be.”
The virologist said that the production of the vaccines was fuelled by international political propaganda.
Meanwhile, Doctor Tobin Ekaette, Consultant Public Health physician Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital, Edo State, said popularly held opinions about the use of the vaccine and virus to usher in a ‘new world order’ was unfounded and ‘very terrible information.’
“I understand that these developments could be scary for the layman, but it is about striking a balance between withholding and saving lives, ” she said.
Ekaette noted that under the emergency use authorisation, positive phases of laboratory results had proven the efficacy of the vaccine.
“The vaccine is still going through phase three—marketing evaluation—but nonstop research is still be carried out every day.”
While some popularly held misconceptions about the coronavirus and the vaccines have been debunked, citizens’ apathy still stalls the acceptance of the vaccine in Nigeria three months after the country received its first dose of the vaccine.
This is an edited version of a story by Jennifer Ugwa which originally appeared on ICIR Nigeria