Featured

COVID-19 Vaccines: When Pastors Misinform

Estimated Reading Time: 12

Erabor is an evangelical Pentecostal Christian living in Lekki, an affluent suburb in Lagos for the widely travelled, well-educated upper-middle-class Nigerians.

She does not trust the speed with which they produced these vaccines. “And these mRNA/DNA vaccines that change a person’s DNA nucleus are a “no-no”, she says. 

She adds she will not be taking any vaccine made from aborted fetal tissues. But, she need not worry, vaccines cannot alter DNA because it does not function that way.

These claims are false, and only a few of the misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines found in social media communities. No matter how many times they debunked these, they continue to inform vaccine choices.

Nigerians are at risk of the dangers of false information as they are from the virus. Like most of the world, the country is experiencing an infodemic

Even as COVID-19 vaccination campaigns are ongoing, false information on these vaccines spread even faster. These sources of false information are often people within social networks of trust. They are family and friends or influencers on whom they rely. 

For many Nigerians, it is the religious leader. For Christian evangelicals, it is the pastor, the overseer, the man of God.

When these pastors misinform on vaccines or other issues on health and well-being, their followers consider it factual. 

This hesitancy for COVID-19 vaccines is because of false narratives and misinformation about the vaccine, especially by influential evangelical Pentecostal pastors. Some of these pastors spread disinformation, not only from the pulpit but through social media. In videos and recorded sermons distributed on closed groups like WhatsApp or even open groups on Facebook. Some of their claims have become hashtags and memes on Twitter. 

Yet, no matter how ridiculous the claim might be, their followers believe them and decide on these vaccines from what their pastors preach.

Professor Ajala, a medical anthropologist from the University of Ibadan, speaks of an intersection between religion and health advocacy. He says that many of the doctrines of religion favour well-being, with strong implications for the religious because they see their religion as an emotional and tangible resource. And when the science around health interventions are unclear or misinformed, people find comfort and hope in religion.

Some estimates have Nigerians almost evenly split between Christianity and Islam, making religious leaders powerful influencers.

In late March, the country sent some vaccines to Ghana and Togo to avoid them expiring. These vaccines supplied had a short shelf life. AstraZeneca vaccines, for instance, could be stored in the refrigerator for six months, but on arrival to Nigeria, it already cost months of storage. 

Since Nigerians were reluctant to take these vaccines, it served better to send them to other countries.

Nigeria is collaborating with other African countries and international agencies with others for vaccine delivery by the end of July. The aim is to ensure their goal of vaccinating 20% of the population. 

Osagie Enahire, Nigeria’s Minister of Health, says they are working with COVAX and the West African Alliance (WAHO) to get enough vaccines to vaccinate approximately 40 million people this year. There is also a partnership agreement with the African Vaccination Acquisition Task Team organised by the African Union, to secure these vaccines at a lower rate. It only works if African nations can source for these vaccines together as a collective.

However, there is a challenge, Nigerians are hesitant about the vaccine.

Data from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), in charge of vaccination campaigns in Nigeria, says that only half (50%) of the population are willing to get vaccinated. But we need to vaccinate at least 70% to achieve herd immunity. 

You can see the influence of evangelical Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria as you walk along any street in urban areas. Take Lagos, for example, there’s a church in almost every street, and the crusades cause so much traffic that Lagos is uninhabitable than usual. 

Pastors Chris Okotie, David Oyedepo and Chris Oyakhilome are mega pastors that top the list of super-spreaders of disinformation around the vaccine.

Chris Okotie, the founder of the Household of God Church International Ministries said the Covid-19 vaccine will turn people into vampires. In a video he shared on WhatsApp, which eventually went viral, he claimed to prove, in inexplicable equations, that the names of the members of the Gates family (Bill Gates, his wife and son) show a relationship between the family, Covid-19 and the antichrist. 

He also believed that wearing a mask in the church creates a barrier between God and man.  

Pastor Chris Okotie is a lawyer and a popular musician in the 80s. He is not a qualified scientist. Yet, his followers believe him.

Okotie is not the only pastor employing equations with no meaning to prove conspiracy theories.

These pastors have millions of followers and vast information networks to spread misinformation and disinformation around the Covid-19 vaccine.

These men are neither scientists nor epidemiologists, so why do people believe them as authorities on Covid-19 vaccines?

Another famous pastor peddling COVID-19 disinformation is Chris Oyakhilome, the charismatic leader and founder of Christ Embassy Church who believes that pastors who support the vaccine betray their faith in God’s healing power.

In the months of lockdown in Nigeria, he went viral for a sermon that blamed the virus on the new world order, the antichrist and the false claim that the 5G network causes the covid-19 virus and the vaccine injects trackable nanochips into humans, making them cyborgs. 

It reads of the vivid imagination of a child obsessed with movies and believes it is all true.

He continued spreading disinformation on Covid-19 between April to September as Nigeria’s Covid-19 cases rose. 

On the 5 April 2020. He published his video on 5G technology on his YouTube channel. A month later, it had 148,000 views. 

But it was not well-received by non-members. 

In his defence, his followers started the hashtag #IStandWithPastorChris on Twitter.

Experts say that people ascribe a prophetic quality to movies when something happens in reality that can echo a film plot. The case of art becomes life. It explains renewed interest in the 2011 pandemic film Contagion in the early months of the pandemic. 

Oyakhilome is a charismatic televangelist and a firm believer in the new world order, an ideology that a cruel, one-world government will exist by the end of times to end freedom, democracy and Christianity, the world as we know it will be over. 

This government will also brand unbelievers or negligent Christians with the “mark of the beast”

Oyakhilome owns a media enterprise that includes a very effective digital media team and a social media app, Yookos. 

As 2020 rolled by with the possibility of breakthrough vaccines and social media censoring, he began spreading conspiracy theories about the vaccine within his digital media space and discussions about mis- and disinformation around the vaccine spread unchecked on Yookos. 

He accused pastors and Christians who accepted the vaccine of losing faith in God’s healing power. 

OPEN SOURCE INVESTIGATION(OSINT)

It is important to see the network of support that confirms Oyakhilome’s position on the virus and his theories about it. So I checked. 

First, through advanced searches on Google, Yandex and Twitter, then through Hoaxy, a fact-checking and visualization program.

Using Twitter advanced search, I traced tweets and patterns of Christ Embassy members on two different hashtags they supported, the #IStandWithPastorChris and #NotoVaccineForWork. 

Some accounts have a large following from 10000 to 98000.

What many of these accounts have in common is their descriptive bio. They also share these keywords, LoveWorld, Righteous, First Flight Gang, First Flight Ready or some other variation of First Flight. I learned First Flight means Rapture. So First Flight Ready is Rapture Ready.

For this investigation, I spoke with a young Christ Embassy pastor who permitted me to use his comments on Twitter, but he declined to comment on his role as a pastor within the church. 

Pshegs, on Twitter, is a dedicated anti-vaxxer, anti-covid vaccine at least, and he is a super-spreader of misinformation and disinformation on Covid-19 and Covid-19 vaccines. 

During our brief chat via WhatsApp, I mentioned that Pastor Chris’s theories about the vaccine were false and considered misinformation and disinformation. 

He disagreed, saying that “It is misinformation to conclusively assume that his points are mis / disinformation, especially when there is abundant information out there, and several flip-flopping from WHO (most recent, Social Distancing). 

Let me know when you have any debates around the corner. I’ll sit on science to debate this, outside Christianity. 

Thanks and enjoy the rest of your day!”.

Hoaxy diagram showing connections to pshegs twitter account

A study of social media engagements on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube shows that replies to posts, shares, likes and retweets by Christ Embassy Church or Pastor Chris’s account are predominantly by church members all over the world. It tells of an information echo chamber and bubble created within the digital Christ Embassy community where information, authentic or not, supports their shared beliefs.

What then is a bubble and echo chamber? We often use these terms in a digital investigation to understand the process of information in a community. 

An echo chamber is an environment where you only experience information that reflects and reinforces your own. You are in a bubble when you find you interact and share ideas and information only with people who have the same views as you do. It encourages confirmation bias and spreads misinformation which twists our perception until we cannot consider contrary opinions or even discuss complicated topics.

These pastors are not without social influences, and just like their followers, they also exist in a bubble. I analyzed Twitter and Facebook postings and engagements of Oyakhilome and Oyedepo, two preachers famous for prosperity gospel sermons and miracle healing. Using Hoaxy, I found connections to famous American televangelists who preach prosperity gospel sermons and miracle healing like Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn and Paula White-Cain. These pastors hold similar religious views to anti-coronavirus vaccine pastors in Nigeria.

Kenneth Copeland claimed to heal covid-19 patients through the television and criticized pastors who moved their services online for safety. When he moved online, he and Paula White advised their followers to keep the cash offerings and donations coming.

Paul White-Cain was former President Trump’s spiritual advisor. She went viral for her passionate public prayer calling on African Angels to intercede for Trump in the past US election.

In March, Pastor Chris and Benny Hinn held a global day of prayer against coronavirus. Benny Hinn had wrongly predicted that the death toll for the virus will peak at 5000 and phase out. 

Deaths by Covid-19 have surpassed 3million worldwide.

Hoaxy Image for showing connection between social media accounts. These images show connections within Pastor Chris’s Twitter engagements in 2020 in different time periods.

Olatunji Oluide, a public health professional in Lagos, says that church leaders are valuable and necessary to dismiss myths around the COVID-19 vaccine. Without the help of religious leaders, many will hesitate or refuse to take the vaccine. He is part of the team monitoring the effects of misinformation/disinformation on vaccination efforts in the state.

The World Health Organisation says that the more vaccinated people in a community, the quicker that community achieves herd immunity.

Herd immunity is the idea that vaccination can control the spread of a virus. Vaccines teach our body to recognize and fight viruses and germs to keep us from getting sick from them in the future. 

FACT-CHECK:

mRNA exists in all living organisms. There’s a simple description of the mRNA on GAVI’s website. The mRNA is strands of genetic codes that instruct our cells to make proteins our body needs to function. But it is not the same as DNA. They have different chemical structures, like water and oil, it’s impossible to mix with our DNA or even change it. Besides, our body gets rid of it after 72 hours, by then its work is done. 

GAVI is the vaccine alliance working to make sure that even the world’s poorest countries get vaccinated. 

It may seem worrisome on the surface that this vaccine technology was approved so quickly when we are just getting to know about it, but in reality, there have been many studies of DNA and mRNA vaccines in humans and animals. 

They published the first report of a successful mRNA test in 1990 when mRNA injected into mice produced the required protein. Scientists behind Moderna have been working on this technology for 15 years, hoping to vaccinate against the Nipah virus, then came Covid-19.

Vaccines like Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna use messenger RNA or mRNA technology.

COVID-19 VACCINES

As it stands, vaccines are the only way to keep us safe. There are a few vaccines approved by WHO for emergency use for Covid-19. You can find a list of these vaccines on their website

The AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine administered in the country already, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine use viral vector technology in production. This is a method of vaccine production where the vaccine is created using a virus (vector) that has been made safe for humans.

They produced the AstraZeneca vaccine by inserting a tiny piece of genetic code from the COVID-19 virus into a deactivated adenovirus. The code tells our cells to make a single protein of the COVID-19 virus which the immune system recognizes and produces antibodies to attack the virus if we ever come in contact with it.

Vaccines must be safe and efficient to prevent disease and infection. They pass through different phases to determine if the vaccine is safe and capable of preventing diseases or infection or both.

First, the preclinical phase or animal testing phase, if this is successful, they move on to three clinical trials. They conduct the first phase of the trials with a small sample size of fewer than 100 people. If this is successful, then phase 2, increasing the sample size to 100-1000, and if there is a breakthrough, the sample size increases to the tens of thousands for phase 3. 

There are several other steps involved in this but, if all goes well and there is a pandemic, they get approved for emergency use authorization. 

In Nigeria, before they administer vaccines to the public, NAFDAC, Nigeria’s drug and food agency, must license it. Licensing takes 120 working days. 

In an interview with Channels Television, Moji Adeyeye, the NAFDAC Director-General said WHO must declare vaccines outside Nigeria safe for use before they consider it for NAFDAC approval. 

For this to happen smoothly and efficiently, WHO presents NAFDAC with enough data to decide for Emergency use authorization.

Not all evangelical Pentecostal pastors are anti-vaccine. Pastors like Paul Adefarasin, Senior Pastor of House on the Rock churches. He suffered a loss to coronavirus and preaches in the church and on social media on vaccine acceptance. Tony Rapu, a trained doctor and senior pastor of the House of Freedom whose workers organised a COVID-19 awareness campaign educating traders on safety protocols while distributing face shields and face masks. 

Religious leaders who are pro-COVID vaccines inspire pro-vaccine followers. 

Or at the least, people who develop the -wait and see- approach. These people wait to see how the vaccine affects their family, friends, and neighbours. 

If they judge the outcome positively, they get vaccinated too. 

The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, the national body that oversees Pentecostal churches in the country, encourages vaccine acceptance and safety protocols. In February, it held a virtual conference on Covid-19.

According to their Facebook page, it was to encourage prayers and faith in these times. Showing that you can listen to science while holding on to your faith. 

One does not negate the other. Besides, religious faith promotes well-being. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*