Religious groups warm up to COVID-19 vaccines in Zimbabwe

“Our church doctrine says we don’t go to hospital when are sick or get vaccinated, but with COVID-19 it is a new ball game altogether."

Kholwani Nyathi
Apostle church
UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Ben AWET
10 November 2021

Sixty-five-year-old Gladys Mapondera, a lifetime member of one of Zimbabwe’s dominant apostolic sects, is not phased after supporting COVID-19 prevention measures and receiving the vaccine.

“I chose to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because it is a matter of life and death for me and my family,” says Mapondera, a senior leader at a Johanne Marange Apostolic sect in Mashonaland West’s Hurungwe district.

“Our church doctrine says we don’t go to the hospital when are sick or get vaccinated, but with COVID-19 it is a new ball game altogether and I have to take matters into my own hands.

“After we were taught about the dangers of COVID-19 I took the decision to get vaccinated because my life is my responsibility.”

She did not inform the church leaders before taking the vaccine but says she has now been rehabilitated after disclosing that she had been vaccinated.

“It is a process that one goes through when they transgress, but I have no regrets,” Mapondera said.

Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe have, for years, often not participated in vaccination programmes because they are against the use of modern medicine.

UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/ Ben Awet

Research in 2017 showed that objections to vaccines among Apostolic church members was linked to the rise and spread of measles in southern Africa between 2009 and 2010.

The sects that are distinctive with their white garments and open-air worship are estimated to have nearly five million members in Zimbabwe or a quarter of the country’s population.

Zimbabwe will be banking on these sects and all groups within cimmunities embracing the COVID-19 vaccination programme to achieve its target of vaccinating at least 60 percent of the population by year end.

The government believes the threshold will be enough to achieve herd immunity and Mapondera says the goal is not far-fetched as more members of her church are showing interest in the vaccination programme.

She is one of the beneficiaries of COVID-19 awareness programmes targeting interfaith leaders that are being spearheaded by the Apostolic Women’s Empowerment Trust (AWET) to address vaccine hesitancy across 52 districts in Zimbabwe.

AWET, supported by UNICEF with funding from the Health Development Fund (UK Aid, EU, SIDA-Sweden, Irish Aid and GAVI), is complementing the Ministry of Health and Child Care in prioritising community engagement activities to improve the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines.

The collaboration with interfaith and community leaders is helping shift negative perceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines that have been attributed to widespread misinformation and long held religious beliefs.

“At my church I am seeing a lot of people embracing the vaccines because they now understand that their lives and those of their loved ones depend on them getting the COVID-19 vaccine,” Mapondera said.

“No pastor or elder will chase me from church because I got the vaccine, it is now a matter between me and God.”

Amos Karwizi (73), who leads a Johanne Marange sect in Hurungwe’s Finland area, said he decided to get vaccinated voluntarily for the first time in his life after taking part in COVID-19 awareness programmes spearheaded by AWET.

“For the first time in more than 60 years that I have been a member of the church, I made a decision to get vaccinated after attending meetings where we were taught about COVID-19 by AWET.”

He believes that when religious leaders embrace the vaccination programme their followers will follow suit.

“Some believed that the vaccines cause impotence or will drain their energy and make it difficult for them to do their work in the fields, but it’s been two months since I was vaccinated and nothing happened to me,” Karwizi said.

“When I talk to people at my church, I tell them that the government encourages that everyone must get the vaccine and I try not to appear like I am challenging the church doctrines.”

UNICEFZimbabwe/2021/Ben AWET

AWET’s awareness programmes that are driven by Behaviour Change Facilitators (BCFs) target influencers such as interfaith and community leaders as well as youth networks to provide correct and up to date information on COVID-19 vaccines.

They also address myths and disinformation around vaccines to influence community acceptance of the vaccination programme.

The BCFs are also playing an important role in reminding communities not to be complacent but keep practicing the COVID-19 appropriate behaviours of handwashing, sanitising, masking and maintaining physical distance.

Sharon Chiringa, AWET district focal person in Hurungwe, said they had 36 BCFs in rural Hurungwe and another 24 in Karoi urban.

“We recruited these people to work in the wards where they stay to ensure that they are able to reach their families, neighbours and close community with lifesaving information,” Chiringa said.

“As someone from Hurungwe I am happy to see that our programme is making a difference.

After a slow start attributed to vaccine hesitancy, Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 vaccination programme has taken off with over 2.2 million people having received their second dose as of end of September.