Opinion: Religious groups should be engaged for COVID-19 vaccine delivery

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A sheikh counsels mothers on the importance of vaccinating their children against polio in Lafaisa, Ethiopia. Photo by: Getachew / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

Vaccinating a large share of the planet’s population rapidly and effectively is a truly unique challenge, and it demands resources and partnerships from many, if not all, communities. The world’s large and diverse religious communities, too often sidelined in health and development forums, bring distinctive assets and should be involved right from the start. Religious communities offer high levels of trust, practical resources, and layers of commitment to equity.

Engaging religious actors and translating their broad appeal require a finely tuned appreciation for what COVID-19 vaccination engagement entails. We fear that religious actors’ considerable potential has not yet been sufficiently tapped in planning COVID-19 vaccine rollouts. But when religious roles are recognized, some forms of engagement could also do more harm than good, undermining years of relationship-building work in a rush for fast vaccine delivery.

Faith engagement in immunization is not new. Religious actors’ work around resistance against polio vaccination in northern Nigeria from 2003 to 2004 is one of the best-documented recent examples of the religious community addressing vaccination resistance and propelling uptake.

In that case, as in many others, religious arguments intertwined with social, economic, political, and cultural factors. Influential regional Muslim leaders propagated fear around the vaccine. But the sultan of Sokoto, a spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, prominently supported the oral polio vaccine and helped reverse the boycott.

Development actors such as UNICEF, long involved in routine immunizations, have undertaken social mobilization efforts with religious actors. When fully and appropriately engaged, religious actors can play game-changing roles in boosting immunization rates.

Partnerships to raise awareness and counter misinformation must be based on shared priorities and dialogue, not top-down messages handed over to religious leaders.

Information and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines are already widespread, including through religious community networks. There have been reports of some religious resistance to the vaccines, while religious leaders elsewhere are speaking out forcefully for their fair and equitable distribution.

We urge thoughtful, intentional, and urgent engagement of religious networks in vaccination strategies and delivery. Our faith engagement experience in global health and development suggests several fundamental takeaways:

1. Context is everything. Religiously framed resistance is nearly always linked to other social, political, and economic factors. Unpicking these intersections is tricky, but necessary, to fully address vaccine hesitancy and resistance. Always investigate religious dynamics in planning and progress evaluations.

2. Building trust and relationships with religious actors is the starting point and endpoint. It is never too early — or too late — to start building those relationships. The critical first step is to listen and hear. It is essential to collectively identify and define common ground.

The primary goal is not necessarily to reach and change the minds of the most hard-line communities. Most religious believers are open to COVID-19 prevention methods and vaccinations. With the correct information and constructive engagement, they will participate in vaccine rollout.

3. Analyze assumptions and stereotypes. Religious communities are potential allies in vaccine rollout, but they may be sidelined for reasons that include stereotypes.

Religious communities are large and highly diverse, and people regularly disagree with each other within their traditions. Studies show wide variance with religious beliefs, both positively and negatively associated with vaccinations. Health and development staffers should not fall into the trap of stereotyping and assuming that “religion” is against vaccination or “religion” will always be a barrier — nor should acceptance be taken for granted.

4. Work equitably with religious networks, champions, and structures. Many religious communities are ready to correct misinformation and encourage COVID-19 prevention measures and vaccinations, and many have elaborated creative communication methods on COVID-19.

Part of our Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

Partnerships to raise awareness and counter misinformation must be based on shared priorities and dialogue, not top-down messages handed over to religious leaders. Religious communities are not only recipients of information generated by health and development actors. Pay attention to how religious communities organize and work within those structures, rather than using different methods.

5. Religious hospitals, nurses, doctors, and administrators are significant assets. Religious health actors should be participants in the rollout. Likewise, even when not directly involved in health, religious actors could be involved. Examples include using religious buildings as vaccination sites or having religious personnel serve on task forces to decide vaccine prioritization and equity.

We urge concerted efforts by global health and development institutions involved in vaccine-demand generation, vaccine readiness and delivery, community engagement, and vaccine equity to join forces in looking thoughtfully and strategically to informed faith engagement as an integral and central part of global and national approaches, a central part of COVID-19 vaccine planning everywhere, in every country.

We recommend using these questions as an initial guide for context; utilizing this overview of religions, immunization, and global health for more supporting evidence; and finding out more about religious responses to COVID-19.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Olivia Wilkinson

    Olivia Wilkinson, Ph.D., is director of research for the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, or JLI, a network on research and learning around faith actors’ roles in the humanitarian and development sectors. She directs JLI’s research work, collaborating with U.N. agencies, governments, NGOs, and universities alike. She published the book "Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response" with Routledge in early 2020 and recently co-edited a new volume titled “International Development and Local Faith Actors: Ideological and Cultural Encounters.”
  • Katherine Marshall

    Katherine Marshall has worked for over four decades on international development, focusing on the world’s lowest-income countries. A senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and professor of the practice of development, religion, and conflict in the School of Foreign Service, she is executive director at the World Faiths Development Dialogue, whose mission is to bridge gulfs separating the worlds of development and religion. Previously, she worked for 35 years at the World Bank as an operational manager.