Special Report: Nigerian Catholics and the hesitation towards COVID-19 vaccines
By Nelly Kalu
We examine vaccine hesitancy among Catholics in Nigeria and why a proclamation from The Pope is not a strong enough influence for Nigerian Catholics to accept the vaccine.
It is 8am, worship time in Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, Trans Ekulu, Enugu, a city in Nigeria’s Southeast.
Inside the church and around the parish, people have their masks on and try to keep a physical distance from each other. But once outside, masks are off, and they abandon any semblance of adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols.
It’s the same experience in major cities in Nigeria. A look at that scene and you would be correct to think that Nigeria has finally achieved its goal of vaccinating 70% of its population in record time.
But in reality, Nigeria can only vaccinate about 2 million of its more than 200 million citizens.
Barely making a dent in their goal so far.
Why would anyone risk living as if coronavirus did not exist, you ask? Well, in Enugu, like in most of the country, people do not believe that the virus is real and those that do think it’s exaggerated by the government.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Enugu was on 28 March 2020. Six months later, it came to over 4000 cases and 90 deaths in the south-eastern region, according to the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC).
The Catholic church was not spared. They estimate that 115 priests lost their lives to COVID-19, according to Catholic news journals.
The church was not careless or in denial about the virus. She encouraged her members to observe safety precautions and quickly restricted physical services when it became necessary to do so.
Journalists who report on the Church in Nigeria said that they changed several rituals to fit the times. They suspended the shaking of hands and the sign of the cross, and even the manner of receiving holy communion changed. Instead of giving it to the congregation directly into the mouth, they gave it to the palm.
A survey conducted in September and October by Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) found that one in five persons in Lagos, Enugu and Nasarawa had been infected with COVID-19.
Now, when you do a keyword search on Google, Bing and Yandex for reasons Catholics are hesitant about the COVID vaccine, its connection to aborted fetal cells pops up.
We began this investigation from there only to find that Catholics in Nigeria have their unique concerns, and it has nothing to do with fetal cells. Not immediately, at least.
To the Igbos of South Eastern Nigeria, Catholicism is as old as time. And this connection is not of the fervently religious, it’s a loyal one formed out of a shared tragedy. There’s a record of this by researchers in the Religious and Public Life, Harvard Divinity School. It says that in the 15th-century Portuguese explorers came to Nigeria bringing Catholicism, but it was an unsuccessful mission.
A few centuries later, it reappeared, this time successfully, in Lagos, in 1865 by priests of the Society of African Missions of Lyon, spreading throughout Nigeria to the 1950s when it created the first archdioceses of Kaduna, Lagos and Onitsha.
Today, they assign Nigerian priests all over the world.
The world’s largest Catholic seminary is the Bigard Memorial in Enugu State at 99 years old. Its 2019/2020 calendar registered 855 seminarians.
The Catholic Church cared about the Nigerian- Biafran Civil war. Between 1967 – 1970, it took the news of the suffering out to the rest of the world, and in 1968 a Vatican mission visited Biafra.
Pope Paul VI spoke out on behalf of Biafran Igbos, personally. But when the war was over, the Nigerian government expelled about 500 missionaries who supported the Biafran Igbos from Nigeria – and no missionaries served in the country until the mid-1970s.
In Enugu town, the capital of Enugu State, many Catholics are skeptical about the vaccine, and some have already decided not to ever get vaccinated for COVID-19 when vaccines are available.
Father Matthew Adetiloye,a Salesian of Don Bosco and a chaplain for the Saint Don Bosco Youth Center tells us that people are not convinced about the deadliness of the virus. Also, there is not enough communication around the vaccines leaving many locals unaware or unconcerned about it.
On 31 December 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed its first vaccine for emergency use, the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. Since then, five other vaccines have joined the list, Moderna, Sinovac, Sinopharm Johnson & Johnson, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca (now called Vaxeria or Covid Shield). Almost all of these vaccines used fetal cell lines in different stages of production.
Bishops in the United States, Australia, Canada and South America opposed these vaccines publicly, asking Catholics to reject them. Catholic Doctors in Kenya would not even recommend them as it was against their beliefs.
Accounts on Twitter and Facebook claiming to be Catholic priests spread misinformation about these vaccines.
The most widespread claim among Catholics online was the false claim that these vaccines are created vaccines fetal tissue.
Then the Catholic Church made public her position on these vaccines. The Vatican pronounced it “morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” Because of the pandemic, she said, “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience knowing that the use of such vaccines does not mean formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”
Following the lead, Catholic Bishops Conferences in countries where disinformation around the vaccines was viral issued statements on their positions on these vaccines. Bishop Conferences in the United States,United Kingdom, Canada, and Kenya made public statements echoing the Vatican.
Here In Nigeria, the Catholic Bishops Conference is silent.
A clear contrast to their actions during the early months of the pandemic and lockdown. For instance, in April 2020, Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike relaxed the lockdown to allow for Easter Celebrations. The Bishop of Port-Harcourt dioceses rejected the order and asked Catholics to stay safe and stay home. During this same period, the Bishops Conference of Nigeria donated all 435 hospitals and clinics owned by the church for COVID-19 patients. These Bishops in their respective dioceses donated food and supplies to families who suffered most during the lockdown months.
All these make their silence rather saddening.
Some bishops have spoken positively of the vaccine and encouraged acceptance. The conference of Bishops itself has been silent.
Is their silence a lot louder now? Now that vaccines are available, yet all the economic and social conditions of the pandemic are worse to a considerable degree?
Their silence leaves room for speculation. Leaving Nigerian Catholics to find these answers in charismatic chat rooms on social media where they adopt mis- and disinformation about COVID-19 cures and vaccines as fact.
Using targeted keywords, we searched across social media. But with restrictions placed on Twitter by the Federal Government, we kept our search to Facebook groups and blogs. Members of Facebook groups like the Catholic Charismatic groups shared misinformation amongst themselves and false cures like rosaries soaked in water for getting rid of COVID-19.
Social media groups provide the same sense of community and belonging that physical social groups give. We like and share our views on any subject comfortably, even if they are false and controversial.
These groups were open, allowing anyone with a Facebook account to engage and distribute these false recommendations. Facebook and Twitter have strict rules on content sharing and will immediately remove any content classified as mis- or disinformation leaving only traces of this content for us to find. It is more likely that closed and encrypted spaces like WhatsApp groups would have a lot more COVID-19 misinformation, and it will be shared faster and quicker.
Have you found these in any groups you belong to?
We reached out to the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria and the Health Unit of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), for this investigation but I met with silence. On the CBCN website, there is a dedicated number for the health department. When someone eventually came to the phone, an impatient voice said he no longer worked there and hung up.
The Secretariat referred us to Father Peter Babangida, who never picked up or replied to our text.
For Catholics in other countries, their concern may be about fetal cells and if it is morally permissible to take these vaccines?
For Nigerian Catholics, it is more nuanced.
Is it safe?
Can we trust the government?
And will it cause infertility?
Some church members wouldn’t speak to us on record but they felt that The Pope probably endorsed the vaccine because the coronavirus cases are worse in Europe, but that has no bearing on their choice to not get vaccinated. Some others said they did not know where to get these vaccines.
The National Primary Health Care Development Agency’s (NPHDCA) website shows an updated list of COVID-19 vaccination sites in all 36 states including the federal capital Abuja. And factual information on these vaccines can be found there.
The Vatican assures all Catholics that accepting COVID-19 vaccines does not compromise the Catholic faith but that is not enough to persuade many Nigerian Catholics to take these vaccines.
Contrary to what non-Catholics think, Catholics are not all the same; and they care about different issues.
The Nigerian Catholics prefer a more conservative church and are more opposed to gay marriage and female priesthood than their brethren in the west.
In this same way, they differ in their reasons for rejecting the COVID-19 vaccine.
For the western catholic the concern is ethical. Should a Catholic doctrinally opposed to abortion accept a vaccine even remotely connected to it? But the Nigerian Catholic asks, can I trust my insincere government not to harm me with these vaccines?
Perhaps, for the Nigerian Catholic, it’s not so much distrust for the ethics of COVID vaccines, but a distrust of the government.
The primary purpose of these vaccines is to prevent us from getting sick with the coronavirus, and the vaccines are very efficient at this. Also, there is now more evidence that COVID-19 vaccines can reduce transmission of the virus by reducing the number of people who get infected and reducing the virus levels in those who get infected.
It means that we can hope to live in a COVID-19 free world someday.
But, even the best vaccines are not absolute. Some people may end up catching the virus. GAVI, the vaccine alliance working to ensure a fair distribution of these vaccines to both the rich and poor, calls them the breakthrough cases.
It says that recent results show that Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines reduce the chance of passing on the virus by 40-60%.
So if they vaccinate you and you get the virus, you are less likely to get sick and only half as likely to pass it onto another person. You protect not only yourself but those around you.
The reason we need to wear masks and continue observing safety precautions after taking the vaccine is to protect our neighbours who may not have access to the vaccine and even those who will not take the vaccine. Wearing a mask after vaccination is not evidence that these vaccines are not effective.
Also, there is no evidence of these vaccines causing infertility, and there’s no record of any deaths by the AstraZeneca vaccine in Nigeria.
These claims are the same ones shared on social media which have now clearly made their way into real-life decision making. We conducted several domain analyses across websites that published COVID-19 mis- and disinformation. This process essentially mapped out the domains where a specific website both drew content from and sent users to.
Then we extracted anecdotal information on the percentage of site visits based on user location. It tells us where people who accessed this false information are. This shows us how many Nigerians had access to misinformation.
Vaccines for chickenpox, hepatitis A, Rubella, and COVID-19 are all made by growing the viruses that cause these diseases in fetal cells.
Take chickenpox, for example, you may know someone who was infected with chickenpox at one time or the other, either as children or adults, maybe you were. Think of it this way, the reason the virus isn’t fatal today is that many of us, in our childhood, were vaccinated against it. It did not prevent us from having chickenpox, but it kept us alive and made it less fatal.
We were also too young to remember the side effects of the vaccine-like swelling, soreness, or redness at the site of the injection. Some may also develop a mild rash or a low-grade fever after vaccination and severe side effects are rare. That is the same experience with COVID-19 vaccines.
The Fetal Cells Lines/ Fetal Tissue Confusion:
Fetal cell lines grow in the lab and they’re NOT fetal tissues. They come from cells taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. Those cells have since multiplied into many new cells over the four or five decades creating a fetal cell line. These current cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. They do not contain any tissue from the fetus.
Vaccine production goes back to the 1800s when scientists only tested on animals. Animal testing is still one step in vaccine trials, but it is expensive. The animals are carefully monitored, and even then they may have other bacteria or viruses that could contaminate the vaccine in the end. Some pathogens just don’t grow well in animal cells, like the chickenpox virus.
Catholics, like many people, are conflicted about COVID vaccines. In March, Kenyan Bishops Conference released a statement encouraging Kenyans to take COVID vaccines, saying it was safe and effective and “ an act of love for our neighbor and part of our moral obligation for our common good”.
Yet, Kenyan Catholic doctors refused to recommend the vaccine to their patients.
It is possible that the silence of The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria is telling of the current insecurities in the country . Catholic priests are being abducted in the spate of kidnappings in the country and sometimes, killed.
Catholic bishops have not been silent on this. They speak out against the state of insecurity in Nigeria as the country deals with terrorists, insurgents, and career kidnappers. Maybe, the COVID-19 vaccination is no longer a priority for these bishops.
Yet, their silence leaves room for misinformation to spread among Catholics in Nigeria, increasing hesitancy and outright rejection of these vaccines which is a potentially dangerous outcome .
Throughout this investigation, we followed a simplified open-source intelligence (OSINT) process. In digital investigations, open-source intelligence is information shared in open sources. In terms of social media, it refers to anything you post publicly and in open groups. We identify, verify, preserve, analyse, assess and report on any content that contains mis- or disinformation within the context of Nigerian Catholic communities and unjustified apprehension toward the various COVID-19 vaccines.
Catholics are reverent of those guiding their faith, the hierarchy of the church, and the order it brings to their lives. The Pope, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.
In this hierarchy, the Pope and Cardinals are far removed from the average Nigerian Catholic who looks to their bishops and priests as a direct line in their connection to God. When this is unattended, it allows for false information to determine their decisions. Silence from Nigerian Bishops Conference only impedes vaccination efforts.