COVID-19 vaccination: Traditional and religious leaders hold the aces

By Afolabi Gambari

Traditional and religious leaders have over the years been proven to be key players in the development of Nigeria. This is more for the followership they enjoy. But it is even much more for the gripping influence they wield on their followers. It was not surprising, therefore, that these two groups were relied on heavily by the government to drive the advocacy for the Covid-19 vaccine as Nigeria awaited the arrival of the first batch of Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine in March this year.

As the devastating effect of Covid-19 in 2020 raged, there were also misconceptions by various people on the virus. While some said it did not exist, others argued that it was yet another way through which the government aimed to swindle the citizens. Yet others had been misled into believing that the disease was merely deployed to reduce the world population, targeting Africa.

Traditional leaders have picked up the challenge of safeguarding their people and their efforts in this regard can be said to be across the board. The Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Adeyeye Ogunwusi, was on record to have personally launched a campaign to sensitise the people of his domain and even beyond on the dangers of Covid-19 and went further to make donations of equipment and other materials worth millions of naira.

The Emir of Argungu, Alhaji Samaila Muhammadu Mera, also spearheaded the campaign on Covid-19 on the northern front, the sequel to the successful campaign he waged against polio much earlier, for which he was renowned. The emir was on record to have said he would not relent until all the eligible people in his domain had got vaccinated. He also led by example in getting the jab and thereafter enjoined others to join him.

Reports revealed that in Kwara State, the engagement of traditional leaders on the subject led to increase in individuals presenting for Covid-19 testing, according to the WHO Coordinator in the state, Dr. Mustapha Katibi, who said testing shot up from zero to 875 in the first week of the exercise.

The federal government itself said it had deliberately engaged the traditional leaders in its effort to ensure that more people were vaccinated. According to Health Minister Dr. Osagie Ehanire: “I have personally taken part in such engagements with traditional leaders to encourage people to turn out for vaccination and reduce hesitancy.”

Some religious leaders also brought their influence to bear on driving home the campaign. Dr. Ismail Musa, Chief Imam of the Muslim Community University of Lagos, said: “Both preventive and curative medicine is strongly encouraged.  We should, at this time, solicit for increased access to the Covid-19 vaccine to ensure the entire country is vaccinated within a short span. The pandemic remains a huge threat until the last victim is cured and the virus completely incapacitated or eliminated altogether.”

In a curious turn, however, other religious leaders had different ideas which suggested the absence of harmony, if not deliberate ignorance, among the clergy.

Bishop Iroelekanya Cyriacus Uwanaka, General Overseer of the Pentecostal Restoration Church, Mafoluku, Oshodi, Lagos said: “I will not encourage my members to take the vaccine. My reason is that Covid-19 is affecting only big men in Nigeria; those who are jumping from one cool environment to another. They go from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office and car. The disease, as we are told, thrives in a cool environment. My members are not in that kind of condition.”

John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja, also had a different outlook: “The effectiveness and usefulness of the vaccine continue to be a matter for debate, mainly because there is still a lot that science has not yet unraveled about the virus. In principle, the vaccine should remain voluntary and no essential services should be denied to those who decide to refuse the vaccine, e.g. travel.”

Bishop David Oyedepo of the Living Faith Church and Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Christ Embassy, both of who are said to command about five million followers at home and around the world, were not unambiguous on where they stood on the subject. They have neither offered to take the vaccines nor have pledged to encourage their members to take the vaccines.

It should be noted, however, that the position taken by Oyedepo and Oyakhilome against the Covid-19 vaccines is at variance with the expertise demanded on any subject as their stance does not suggest any authority whatsoever. This can be explained that both clergymen have no record of having worked in the medical field; which portends their stance as dangerous to safety, especially in view of the new Delta variant of the pandemic whose devastating impact is currently proving a huge challenge to medical practice.

At a two-day media dialogue in Kano on September 9 and 10, organised by the Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB) of the Federal Ministry of Information in collaboration with UNICEF, which focused on “demand creation for Covid-19 vaccines”, UNICEF’s Communication Specialist, Dr. Geoffrey Njoku, seemed to address the doubting clergy thus: “It is always better to talk on a subject in which one is an authority.” It was a direct way of saying health matters should be left for health experts.

*Gambari writes via TheCable

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