By Wallace Mawire
UNICEF and the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MOHCC) in Zimbabwe in partnership with Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) hosted a dialogue with interfaith religious leaders from across the country to leverage support for the COVID-19 vaccine roll out and recovery.
The faith leaders were drawn from prominent religious groups including Christian, Islamic and the African Traditional Religions. They were represented by the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference, Seventh Day Adventist, The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe National Association of Traditional Healers and Dare reMweya neVadzimu.
Faith leaders are critical partners in addressing many known barriers to the uptake of health and other essential services, including vaccines.
UNICEF’s Global Faith for Positive Change Initiative recognises the central role and influence of religious leaders in behaviour and social change communication. Through the partnership with AWET, over 850 interfaith and community leaders have been trained to support engaging and mobilizing their communities about integrated COVID-19 prevention and continuity of essential health, nutrition, education, child protection and WASH services. The initiative aims to reach 5 million people across all provinces of Zimbabwe.
To kickstart the dialogue, participants reflected on misinformation, distrust and barriers including social, religious and cultural barriers contributing to vaccine hesitancy. Leading the conversation AWET National Director Tendayi Gudo said, “Understanding and addressing these barriers is key for our partnership with local faith actors, increasing their abilities to counter false claims or address religious questions or other sensitive topics.”
The religious leaders also noted with concern that the spread of too much unfiltered information and misinformation has undermined people’s trust in the COVID-19 vaccines.
Zimbabwe Council of Churches Director for Research, Innovations and Programme Development, Ronald Nare said that faith leaders have a responsibility to provide a fresh understanding and insights about these vaccines. “We must mobilise faith groups to take direct actions to promote the well-being of children, families and the communities they serve.”
This, he said was in line with UNICEF’s Faith for Positive Change for Children, Families and Communities Strategy that states: “Religious leadership hold some of the deepest and most trusted relationships with their communities and, as skilled and influential communicators, they can significantly move the hearts and minds of millions and in turn shape behavioral and cultural practices.”
The faith leaders who attended the three-day workshop endorsed the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and pledged to play an active role in boosting community trust in the science behind COVID-19 vaccines and enlisting their communities to join the efforts to end COVID-19.
The President of the Supreme Council of Zimbabwe, Sheikh Ishmael Duwa said he was the first Islamic leader in Zimbabwe to receive the vaccine in public and is now encouraging congregants and the wider population to get vaccinated.
“I am a sharing my vaccination experience to Islamic followers and Zimbabweans at large to prove that these vaccines are safe and taking them is how we can protect our children, families and communities from this pandemic,” said Sheikh Duwa.
As vaccination champions, the leaders agreed to model and promote positive attitudes and behaviors towards vaccinations, articulate trust in accurate information, engage followers to address faith-related barriers and help congregants to understand how vaccines work.
“With this knowledge, I am going to play a leading role in challenging misinformation circulating through our congregation platforms and social media space by promoting trust in accurate information sources such as Ministry of Health and Child Care and UNICEF,” said Phyllis Manungo from Seventh Day Adventist Church.
With funding from the Health Development Fund (HDF) supported by the EU, UK Aid, Sweden, Irish Aid and Gavi, UNICEF will continue facilitating multi-faith dialogues and actions to increase uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations and improved access to health, nutrition, education, WASH and child protection services to children, families, persons with disability, the ageing population and those in need of care.