SEKE, Zimbabwe — Yvonne Binda stands in front of a church congregation, all in pristine white robes, and tells them not to believe what they’ve heard about COVID-19 vaccines.
“The vaccine is not linked to Satanism,” she says. The congregants, members of a Christian Apostolic church in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, are unmoved. But when Binda, a vaccine campaigner and member of an Apostolic church herself, promises them soap, buckets and masks, there are enthusiastic shouts of “Amen!”
Apostolic groups that infuse traditional beliefs into a Pentecostal doctrine are among the most skeptical in Zimbabwe when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, with an already strong mistrust of modern medicine. Many followers put faith in prayer, holy water and anointed stones to ward off disease or cure illnesses.
The congregants Binda addressed in the rural area of Seke sang about being protected by the holy spirit, but have at least acknowledged soap and masks as a defense against the coronavirus. Binda is trying to convince them to also get vaccinated — and that’s a tough sell.
Congregation leader Kudzanayi Mudzoki had to work hard to persuade his flock just to stay and listen to Binda speak about vaccines.
“They usually run away, some would hide in the bushes,” he said.
There has been little detailed research on Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe but UNICEF studies estimate it is the largest religious denomination with around 2.5 million followers in a country of 15 million. The conservative groups adhere to a doctrine demanding that followers avoid medicines and medical care and instead seek healing through their faith.
Conversely, Tawanda Mukwenga, another religious Zimbabwean, welcomed his vaccination as a means of allowing him to worship 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 closed churches and forced services online. Zimbabwe has reopened places of worship, though worshippers must be vaccinated to enter.
“Getting vaccinated has turned out to be a smart idea,” said Mukwenga, delighted to celebrate Mass at the cathedral again.
More than 80% of Zimbabweans identify as Christian, according to the national statistics agency, but the contrast in attitudes displayed by the Seke Apostolic members and Mukwenga means there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to convincing hesitant religious citizens to get vaccinated.
While mandates — a blunt no vaccine, no entrance rule — is the way to go for some, there’s a subtler approach for the Apostolic and other anti-vaccine Pentecostal groups, partly, but not only, because they are deeply suspicious of vaccines.
Apostolic groups generally have no formal church premises and members, striking in the long white robes they wear to services, worship outdoors in open scrubland or hillsides, in locations widely spread across the country.
That makes gatherings much harder to police and mandates 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 gently changing attitudes toward vaccines from within their own churches.
“We have to cajole them,” Binda said of her fellow Apostolic churchgoers. “Bit by bit they finally accept.”
But it’s rarely a quick conversion.
“We are accepting 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 done it. But our members have always been wary of injections.
“So for now we need soap, buckets, sanitizers and masks,” he said. “Those are the things that will help protect us.”
Churches have taken steps to address hesitancy 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 around 32,000 followers in Ivory Coast, Congo, Liberia and Nigeria. The initial aim is to dispel disinformation.
“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 use in humans and will not make you magnetic — that was a huge one that we heard from a lot of people.”
Gish said her church plans to send out more than 650,000 messages with a “pro-vaccine bias.” But the program will roll out over a few months in a process of “COVID sensitization” and the church is not demanding followers get the vaccine immediately, Gish said.
While slow and steady might be best in dealing with some religious hesitancy, the situation is urgent in Africa, which has the world’s lowest vaccination rates. Zimbabwe has fully vaccinated 15% of its population, much better than many other African nations but still way behind the U.S. and Europe.
So Binda and her fellow campaigners are adaptable if it means changing attitudes a little bit quicker.
One problem they’ve encountered is stigmatization. Some church members are willing to get vaccinated but don’t because they fear being ostracized by peers and leaders. The phenomenon led to campaigners advising the government not to bring mobile clinics to secluded Apostolic groups like the one in Seke, fearing that a public show of vaccinations would do more harm than good.
Instead, vaccine campaigners who normally advocate for openness sometimes encourage secrecy.
Alexander Chipfunde, an Apostolic member and vaccine campaigner who works alongside Binda, told the Seke congregants there was a way to avoid stigmatization.
“Go to the hospital, get vaccinated and keep quiet about it,” he said to them. “It’s your secret.”
Associated Press writer Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.
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