Israel and the United Kingdom are out in front. They are among the top countries in the world in terms of getting their populations vaccinated. But to get there, they first had to combat rumors about the COVID-19 vaccines in faith and minority communities. Well, our correspondents have been tracking how faith leaders played a role in that battle and what lessons we might learn. NPR’s Frank Langfitt is in London, and Daniel Estrin’s in Jerusalem. Hey there you two
KELLY: Frank, I’m going to let you kick us off. What do we know about vaccine hesitancy in the U.K.?
LANGFITT: Yeah. Well, here in the United Kingdom, the populations that were most hesitant were South Asian – people of South Asian descent and Black Britons. There’s historic distrust of government here by these groups, have documented prejudices against them. And of course, their ancestors lived under the British Empire. And also, when you looked at some of the false claims that you would see on the Internet, they seemed almost tailored to some of these groups. For instance, the idea that the vaccine had pork products in it, which is, first of all, not true, and second of all, certainly against Islam.
KELLY: Daniel, how about in Israel?
ESTRIN: Well, I looked at ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities. And there were many illnesses and deaths there, but many communities completely ignored lockdown and distancing rules. I mean, some rabbis even said lockdowns were a conspiracy against their religion and against their way of life, which is very communal. So there was really skepticism from the start, and that was fertile ground for a lot of false rumors about the vaccine.
KELLY: OK, so a huge challenge to overcome. Start with political leaders. What did the government try to do to persuade these communities? You got to get past this. You got to take the vaccine. Daniel, let’s stay with you.
ESTRIN: Well, it was quite easy for the government to persuade the general Israeli public. The message was get vaccinated and you get your lives back. Convincing the ultra-Orthodox community was a very big struggle because ultra-Orthodox Jews take their cues from rabbis and not necessarily from the government. There were many rumors about the vaccines, and rabbis were hesitant to tell their followers to get vaccinated. And there were even some rabbis with YouTube videos warning against the vaccines. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because he depends on ultra-Orthodox political support, his government didn’t crack down enough on these communities with the lockdowns. And so it was just an uphill battle to get them to accept the vaccine.
KELLY: And Frank?
LANGFITT: Yeah. I think by the time the vaccine rolled out here, the government had been pretty discredited. If you remember, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had downplayed the pandemic early on, ended up in the ICU with COVID himself. The government wasn’t in a really strong position, and I think to some degree, they really needed the help of the faith leaders.
KELLY: All right. So that sounds similar in both countries. How did that unfold? What was the messaging from faith leaders?
LANGFITT: Well, particularly here, the imams had a variety of methods. But one thing is they would put together webinars with very tailored messages. I’ll give you one example. There’s an imam that I spoke with in Leeds named Qari Asim. And he would bring in a tech expert to talk to young people who in particular were more likely to believe that 5G spreads COVID, which again, of course, is false. In other cases dealing with individual families, he was almost like a social worker. He did a Zoom session with one family where at least one member was actually fighting his mother getting vaccinations. And this was after his father had already died of COVID. And these were some of the questions that Qari asked him when they were talking on the Zoom session.
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QARI ASIM: Where is he getting this information from and how much does he believe in this information? And then I dissected the arguments that he was presenting by using the scientific information, by using the expert opinion. And there’s a principle in the Quran which says, if you do not know, ask the expert.
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