“It’s Not Satanism”: Zimbabwean church leaders advocate vaccines

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Yvonne Binda, dressed in pristine white robes and in front of a congregation of churchgoers, tells them to forget what they have heard about COVID-19 vaccinations.

She says, “The vaccine does not link to Satanism.” The congregation, which is part of the Apostolic Christian church in Zimbabwe, remains unmoved. Binda, a member of an Apostolic Church and a vaccine campaigner, promises the congregants soap, buckets, and masks. There are cheers of “Amen!”

The most skeptical Zimbabweans are those who infuse traditional beliefs into a Pentecostal doctrine. They also have a strong distrust of modern medicine. Many of their followers believe in the power of prayer, holy water, and anointed stones to cure or prevent disease.

Binda addressed the congregation in rural Seke singing about the protection of the holy spirit. However, they have acknowledged soap and masks as defense against the coronavirus. Binda is trying convince them to get vaccinated. It’s not an easy sell.

Kudzanayi Mudzoki, leader of the congregation, had to work hard for his flock to listen to Binda talk about vaccines.

He said, “They often run away, but some would hide behind the bushes.”

Although there has not been much research into Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, UNICEF estimates that it is the country’s largest religious group with approximately 2.5 million members in a country of fifteen million. These conservative groups believe that followers should avoid medical care and seek healing through faith.

Tawanda Mukwenga, a fellow religious Zimbabwean, embraced his vaccination as a way to allow him to worship in the proper manner. Mukwenga attended Mass in Harare at the Roman Catholic cathedral, marking his first Sunday Mass in person in 10 months since the pandemic that closed all churches and forced people to worship online. Zimbabwe has reopened worship places, but worshippers must be vaccinated before they can enter.

Mukwenga was delighted to attend Mass at the cathedral once again and said, “Getting vaccinated turned out to be smart.”

According to statistics, more than 80% of Zimbabweans identify themselves as Christians. However, the differences in attitudes displayed by Seke Apostolic members, Mukwenga, and Mukwenga mean that there is no single solution for convincing religious citizens who are hesitant to get vaccinated.

Mandates — a clear no vaccine, no entry rule — are the best approach for some. However, the Apostolic and other antivaccine Pentecostal groups have a more subtle approach. This is partly because they are highly suspicious of vaccines.

Apostolic groups are generally not associated with a church and their members worship in long, white robes outdoors in open fields or hillsides.

This makes it much more difficult to police gatherings and almost impossible to enforce mandates.

Binda is just one of the nearly 1000 members of different religious groups that were recruited by UNICEF and Zimbabwe’s government to gently change attitudes towards vaccines within their churches.

Binda stated that she had to “cajole” her fellow Apostolic churchgoers. “Bit-by-bit they accept.”

It’s not always an easy task.

Seke Apostolic leader Mudzoki stated, “We accept that the Holy Spirit might not be sufficient to deal with this virus.” We are considering vaccines, as others have already done it. However, our members are always wary about injections.

He said, “So, for now, we need soaps, buckets, sanitizers, and masks.” These are the things that will protect us.

The Churches of Africa have taken steps to reduce hesitancy. The United Methodist Church is based in the United States and plans to use mass messaging platforms to send text messages from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Congo, Liberia, and Liberia to its 32,000 members. Initial goals are to dispel misinformation.

Ashley Gish, United Methodist Communications, stated that there is a lot of messaging that focuses on reaffirming people that the vaccine works and that it has been tested. “The ingredients are safe to use in humans and won’t make you magnetic — that was an important message that we heard from many people.”

Gish stated that her church will send more than 650,000 messages to its followers with a pro-vaccine bias. However, the program will be implemented over several months through a process called “COVID sensitization.” She also said that the church isn’t requiring them to get the vaccine right away.

Although slow and steady may be the best way to deal with religious hesitancy or other issues, it is critical in Africa where the highest vaccination rates are observed. Although Zimbabwe is doing better than many African countries, it still lags behind Europe and the U.S. in terms of vaccination coverage.

Binda and her fellow campaigners can be flexible if that means changing attitudes a bit faster.

Stigmatization is a problem that they have encountered. Some members of the church are reluctant to be vaccinated, but they do so because they fear being judged by their peers and leaders. Campaigners advised the government to not bring mobile clinics into isolated Apostolic groups such as the one in Seke because they feared that public vaccinations could cause more harm than good.

Instead, those who advocate openness for vaccine campaigns sometimes encourage secrecy.

Alexander Chipfunde is an Apostolic member who also works with Binda as a vaccine campaigner and told the Seke congregation that there was a way around stigmatization.

He told them to go to the hospital and get vaccinated. It’s your secret.