DURING the peak of the pandemic, many religious leaders innocuously spread false narratives about COVID-19 among members of their congregation which put many lives at risk. Most of the misinformation had stemmed from a place of fear and confusion, and the communication gap between the government and religious heads worsened the situation.
In May 2021, Victor Ojo had listened to a sermon by David Oyedepo, the General Overseer at his place of worship, Living Faith Church Worldwide, describing the COVID-19 vaccine as a death warrant.
During the sermon, Oyedepo had warned his church members against taking the vaccine, describing it as a ploy to kill Africans.
“They wanted Africa dead. I heard them say it. When we didn’t die as they proposed, they brought out this vaccination scheme.
“You need to hear their proclamation that Africa will lack spaces to bury corpses. But, today, the reverse is the case. Africa has the least casualties among all the other continents of the world,” Oyedepo said.
Ojo had been exposed to so much conflicting information concerning the virus, and when he heard Oyedepo’s position on the vaccine, he chose to believe his pastor.
“There is so much in this world that many of us don’t understand. A lot of things are spiritual. How did they come up with the vaccine so quickly? The world is coming to an end and something seemed off, so I refused to take it,” he said.
Two months later, he came down with COVID-19.
“I contracted the virus in July and was sick for a month, but thank God I’m better now. It was probably the will of God,” Ojo told The FactCheckHub.
Before the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, Oyedepo had also kicked against lockdown directives since the outbreak of the disease.
The Nigerian government had placed a ban on religious and social gatherings in March 2020 to curb the spread of the virus.
Since markets had been left open for six hours every day, Oyedepo questioned the rationale behind the ban on churches, attributing it to evil forces attempting to cripple Christianity.
Many lives at risk
Nigeria has a high level of vaccine hesitancy, largely due to misinformation and disinformation on the nature of the vaccine, including those spread in religious gatherings.
As one of the most religious nations globally with a deep-seated distrust for the ruling class, citizens are more likely to listen to leaders at their places of worship than the political rulers.
The confusion following the COVID-19 pandemic left many Nigerians with no other option but to follow the teachings of religious leaders who they look up to.
But many religious leaders, through their teachings, continue to put many lives at risk in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The General Overseer of Believers’ Love World, a church popularly known as Christ Embassy, Chris Oyakhilome, had berated church heads who complied with the government’s ban on religious gatherings.
“I can’t understand how a minister of the gospel would be waiting for some vaccine to be the solution for the world. Where is your faith? What happened to you? We cannot make such recommendations; it is not our calling to make such recommendations.
“We cannot be used for that. As a minister of the gospel, you should not be used for that. How can you become a minister of vaccines? What happened to you? Where is the word of God in your mouth?” he asked.
Oyakhilome had also questioned the motive behind vaccination against the virus.
In the heat of the pandemic, he had spread the narrative that the large number of deaths being recorded was a result of the new 5G network, bringing to question the existence of the COVID-19 virus.
Although he had come under criticism by some other religious heads, his narrative of the 5G network spread so quickly across Nigeria, and Amaechi Uzo, a trader in Lagos state, bought into it.
“I first heard at my shop that there was nothing like COVID, rather 5G was killing people. The same day we discussed it at the shop, my neighbour at home told me the same thing. I felt that everybody cannot be wrong at the same time, so I believed,” he said.
Uzo went about his daily activities believing that the pandemic was a lie until he came down with the disease in November 2020.
“Frankly, I was surprised when they said I had COVID-19. I was quite ill, and at that time, I didn’t know what to believe anymore,” he said.
For Chris Okotie, the Senior Pastor at the Household of God Church International Ministries, receiving the vaccine was the same as entering into a covenant with the devil and becoming a vampire.
“Since the blood of Jesus is not what he (Satan) is talking about, or what he has to offer, he will require you to seek blood somewhere else. And the only place where you can find blood is in another human being. So, one of the things that the vaccine will make you do is to become a vampire who needs to drink blood for sustenance,” he said.
The misinformation surrounding COVID-19 is not only spread in churches across Nigeria.
At the peak of the lockdown, Islamic cleric Sani Yahaya Jingir had shared a sermon that was aired online, saying COVID-19 was a conspiracy aimed at restricting Muslims from performing religious rites.
“They are just unveiling Coronavirus that was written in a book 39 years ago. How many graves of Coronavirus victims have you seen and how many of the victims have you seen in hospitals?” he asked.
Like Uzo in Lagos, Ayuba Ishaq, who owns a cosmetic store in Abuja, heard of the sermon and believed it.
It also didn’t help that he had seen images circulating on social media of a novel written years ago which predicted a pandemic and lockdown.
“By the time I developed a fever, I had to see a doctor. He made me take the COVID test and they said I was positive,” he said.
Despite coming down with the virus, Ishaq still believes the preacher was right, and he had only suffered from malaria.
“This thing is just ordinary malaria. I felt the same way as when I had malaria. They are just calling it a big name to deceive people,” he said.
These religious leaders mentioned above can be said to have this much influence over their members due to the popularity they enjoy within and outside their congregation.
However, some less popular religious heads have also played a role in spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 in Nigeria.
A resident of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Ama Judith, told The FactCheckHub that a pastor who she simply identified as Moses, at a church she attended, Daylight Ministries, Apo, had preached against the use of nose masks.
“He said we should do away with nose masks because great worldly powers are using them to make money from the masses. He said this on two separate occasions that I am aware of.
“I didn’t really believe him, but I found myself paying less and less attention to the use of nose masks,” she said.
Although she did not contract the virus, she is now more aware of the risk she took and has since left the church.
Religious leaders have more direct contact with community members, including the poorest and least enlightened.
While some religious leaders used their influence to complement government efforts in curbing the spread of COVID-19, many failed in this regard.
Communication gap plays a role
Some reasons exist which may explain the reaction of some religious heads to the COVID-19 virus.
Despite their ability to influence a large number of community members, there was an absence of adequate communication and sensitisation of religious leaders by the government.
Noting that many religious leaders reacted from a place of ignorance and fear, Clinical Microbiologist and expert in the management of infectious hazards, Bola Olayinka said better communication would have been effective in curbing the spread of misinformation.
“Let’s remember these religious leaders were human beings. There were many other people who did not believe in the existence of COVID in 2020, but who today are the ones saying that COVID is real,” she said.
She also told The FactCheckHub that some religious leaders had adopted a defensive position to government directives due to a lack of proper understanding of the situation.
“I think at the beginning, just like the government went all out to do media engagements, engaging teachers in schools, business owners, I feel they should have done an engagement with the religious leaders.
“But it looked like the government just gave out rules to them, so that kind of put them in the situation to think the state was against them. The state did not call them in for dialogue,” she said.
For Public Health expert, Adeyemi Opeyemi, misinformation continues to be a major challenge in the public health sector.
She noted that policies should be consistently put in place to help deal with the menace both at national and international levels, adding that the peculiar nature of the virus gave room for frequent misinformation and disinformation.
“COVID was peculiar in the sense that the science kept evolving, not much was known at first so it opened the room for a lot of doubt and theories about it,” she said.
“Religious places weren’t happy that a disease could threaten the gathering of their followers and cause them to do things differently. So, there was a need to give information that would threaten the existence of COVID,” she said.
She noted that some governments across the world imposed fines on persons who spread misinformation about the virus to curb it.
“The United Kingdom is an example of where the government stepped in; they fined anyone including religious organisations that spread misinformation about COVID. This shows that it is possible.
“One thing social media sites did was ensure links with the right information were provided with any tweet or post related to COVID or COVID vaccination.
“So, this can also be put into place, get religious people or associations who can create united jingles and short ads promoting the right information,” she said.
* This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Code for Africa and Ayin Network.