‘We are protected by prayers’: the sects hampering southern Africa’s vaccine rollout

The hillside of Kuwadzana is a Harare suburb. Hymnal music reverberates around it. Members of the Apostolic church, dressed all in white, sing and hum together on a scorching Saturday.
The outdoor service is punctuated by songs, long prayers, and a little Bible reading. It is a spectacle that attracts many people.

The Zimbabwean government partially reopened church gatherings in August. Apostolic members are known for their open-air worship and can be found every weekend in the capital.

The government asked religious organizations to endorse the Covid-19 vaccination. This endorsement has been made by the Catholic church, evangelical, and adventist churches.

The preacher told us that nothing would happen to our families if we used little stones and holy waters.

Some white-veil church congregations are refusing to encourage their members to get vaccinated because they have a history of not trusting or seeking medical help.

The church has millions of followers in southern Africa and could jeopardize Zimbabwe's efforts to immunise 60% of its population by December.

Gramaridge Musendekwa of Vadzidzi Apostolic Church says that we believe in God and science is completely subject to God's will.

My parents' prayers were my foundation and they taught me how to pray. I have passed it on to my children. Musendekwa (38) says that my family won't receive the vaccine because they are protected by prayers.

We shouldn't be forced to have vaccines. We who were raised without medicines are not able to receive vaccinations. The authorities are free to achieve any goal they wish without our involvement.

Many sect leaders have refused to support the vaccination program because they are unsure of the availability of medical assistance within the Apostolic Church. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

According to research published by the Journal of Religion and Health 2017, the Apostolic position could threaten the success of vaccine programmes in southern Africa. It was directly linked to the increase in measles cases in 2009 and 2010.

Over 85% of Zimbabweans identify themselves as Christians, while 37% belong the Apostolic church.

It's Saturday at 2pm and nobody is wearing a government-mandated mask at St Peters Apostolic Church in Harare.

Miriam Mushayabasa (34), a mother of three, decided that she doesn't need a vaccine after spending hours at a shrine decorated with red-and-white flags.

The preacher told us that nothing would happen to our families if we used the little stones and holy waters he prayed for. Mushayabasa says that since Covid-19 was started last March, my family has never been affected by this disease. We are still as strong as ever.

Bis now, 15% of Zimbabwe's population has been immunized. Photograph: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

My children are strong so I don't have to be afraid. Prayers have been a part of my life since childhood. This is how I chose to get through this pandemic.

The government does not allow anyone who has not been vaccinated to attend religious services. However, this is difficult to enforce in Apostolic churches that meet outdoors in fields and on hillstops.

Since February, Zimbabwe's vaccination program has inoculated 15 percent of its population. It is among 15 African countries that have reached the World Health Organization goal of 10% vaccinations by September.

Regular imports of vaccines are coming from China. However, the government claims that misinformation and general distrust have hindered the progress of the vaccination program.

Some leaders from the Apostolic church encourage members to get vaccinated. Photograph: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

Prosper Chonzi is the director of Harare's health services. He says that authorities are running campaigns to promote the benefits and increase vaccination take-up.

We are continuing to engage them [the church] and now we have more literature. The vaccine was being questioned more often. The vaccine is now better understood.

Aaron Chakaipa (40), echoing the fears of his Apostolic colleagues, said, "I heard that if your child gets vaccinated, it will make you infertile." It is really scary for me to do it.

Individuals should be able to make their own decisions and not be forced into getting the vaccine. It is like telling people to avoid church if they have not been vaccinated.

Andby Makururu is a bishop and founder of Johane Fifth of Africa Apostolic Church in eastern Manicaland. He encourages his members to get vaccinated.

We are changing the indigenous church to meet global standards. Johane, the Fifth of Africa, has been involved in a vaccination drive. We encourage all members to get vaccinated in all of our preachings. The Holy Spirit cannot cure all diseases. He says that I encourage the Apostolic sect members to visit hospitals to get treated. I get regular checkups and treatment as well.

He believes that sects that deny the benefits vaccines have lost touch with their roots.

Our children are getting vaccinated. Makururu states that those who aren't vaccinated are still behind, but that we are adapting to the times.