Tackling COVID-19 vaccine misinformation through Faith Leaders
Faith leaders are key in behaviour change
The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines in Malawi had a mixed reception. Despite the devasting effects of the virus in the first and second waves, many people were still hesitant about getting vaccinated. While the demand and uptake have been encouraging in the urban areas, the demand and uptake have been worryingly low in the rural areas.
Myths and Misinformation have been major contributors of vaccine hesitancy.
In efforts to address these challenges, including general misconceptions about COVID-19, UNICEF Malawi, with funding from UNICEF France, collaborated with the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), an inter-religious grouping representing faith groups in Malawi to implement Faith and Positive Change for Children (FPCC) Initiatives to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative provided a platform for religious leaders and actors to play an active and impactful role in the COVID-19 response.
PAC held a meeting with the Head of State, His Excellency President Lazarus Chakwera, to kickstart this initiative to seek his support and commitment to the cause.
Deputy Executive Director Sophie Nthenda has worked at the Public Affairs Committee for over two decades. She believes the engagement with President Chakwera was crucial because the advocacy started at a high level.
"At the start of the pandemic, religious leaders were not in the forefront in helping spread awareness messages on COVID-19. By involving them, we wanted to address issues to do with rituals and misinformation, as some religious leaders were blamed for not encouraging people to get vaccinated," she explains. "We, therefore, informed the president that as PAC and religious leaders, we want to take part in advocating for safe measures on COVID-19 and adherence to public health guidelines."
Following this engagement, PAC in collaboration with the Ministry of Health produced contextualized leaflets and posters with COVID-19 awareness messages to distribute in communities as they commenced workshops with religious leaders in five districts (Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mulanje Mwanza and Mchinji).
"During these workshops we met faith leaders, traditional leaders, youth and district members to discuss how they can work together and mobilize people in their areas on taking COVID-19 preventative measures and vaccine uptake. We met and engaged more than 8,000 religious leaders in the various districts," Sophie says. "We also had young people who were engaging other young people in these areas to train them on how to counter misinformation on social media."
Awareness was also raised on avoiding congestion and practicing physical distancing in places of worship; in churches, mosques and other religious settings as well as the importance of wearing masks.
The project's impact was significant, as religious leaders and their congregations responded well to the messaging. Sophia says, "some religious leaders would send us reports on the meetings they organized and the number of congregants who have gone for vaccination. A lot of people opted for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine since they only had to take it once."
The secondary effects of COVID-19 on communities in Malawi have been massive especially for children and adolescent girls, reversing and halting the development gains the country achieved over the years. The role of faith leaders in addressing these challenges related to COVID-19 cannot be over-emphasized.
UNICEF Communication for Development Specialist explains, "Faith Leaders in Malawi play an influential role in both the political and social spheres and have a broad following in the country. Their presence in local communities, combined with their capacity to deliver critical services, allow them to mobilize grassroots support, earn the trust of vulnerable groups, and influence cultural norms. This can help us make strides in fighting the pandemic and resume normality in the country, especially when vaccine uptake increases."
For Sophia, she is proud to note that the project reached 85,000 people. Although the project was only for a year, the religious and traditional leaders involved continued to hold sensitization meetings in communities.
"It's encouraging to see that there is continuity, though we wish it was expanded to other districts to reach more people. It also makes me proud that I was one of the people who helped disseminate messages on COVID-19 to help save lives," she says.