One of Australia's peak Islamic federations has certified coronavirus vaccines as Halal, but fears that the government's allocation of $1.3 million towards targeted information for CALD communities won't be enough to combat conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Federal government funding to provide crucial vaccine information to multicultural communities may not be enough to stop misinformation, according to the CEO of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), Keysar Trad.
Health Minister Greg Hunt on Sunday announced $1.3 million in funding to provide crucial vaccine information in over 60 languages, as part of its now $31 million COVID-19 vaccine rollout campaign.
The release of funds is part of the government's plan to ensure that targeted vaccine information reaches culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities in the languages they speak.
"That means we will be doing advertisements in over 30 languages, information sheets and videos in over 60 languages with the support of SBS. I want to thank everybody who has been involved with that," Mr Hunt told reporters.
"We have seen from the UK that one of the challenges is people from particular backgrounds where they may not have English as a first language have the information, particularly older Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds.”
While Mr Trad welcomes the allocation of funds for this purpose, he fears that it may not be enough to refute vaccine conspiracy theories widely spread across ethnic communities.
“[The funding] is not sufficient to engage in a comprehensive dialogue with CALD communities. There is an alarmingly increasing number of people spreading wrong information,” he told SBS Arabic24.
“They’re afraid and they’re inciting others’ fear of the vaccine.”
He believes an in-depth national dialogue about the vaccine is of great importance at this stage, considering the consequences of spreading false information.
“If someone is determined to spread conspiracy theories and the virus continues to spread and more deaths happen, I’d call this behaviour inhumane and even criminal.”
The first phase of the government’s rollout will see vaccinations administered to quarantine and border workers, frontline health workers, as well as aged care and disability care staff and residents.
With hesitancy in opting to take the vaccine still visible, Mr Trad believes community leaders will play a large role in reassuring people about the efficiency of the vaccines chosen by the federal government.
“When community leaders take the vaccine and people can see how they can maintain their health and wellbeing, more will be encouraged to take it,” Mr Trad added.
For its part, AFIC issued a fatwa, or ruling, which concluded that COVID-19 vaccines are considered as Halal, or permissible to take.
Mr Trad explained that the certification was not requested by the government but was well-received by the offices of Mr Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“We fulfilled our duty towards society to raise awareness. It is a responsibility that we have taken upon ourselves. Our sheikhs and scholars conducted extensive research and issued a rational fatwa addressing the concerns and queries of Muslims in the country,” he said.
The fatwa statement reads: “Islam always promotes the saving of life as per the words of the Almighty: Whoever saves a life, it is as he has saved all humanity. There is an obligation on all Muslims to seek treatment for illnesses based on the hadith of our prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him: ‘No harming or seeking harm.’”
However, Mr Trad said the ruling stirred some backlash.
“There were people who did not like the fatwa and continued to hold on to fear, but government agencies welcomed the fatwa and the statement was shared with the ministry of health and the office of the prime minister. They [government] know that communities need further education in this area.”
More than 142,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have arrived in Sydney in a major milestone for Australia's response to the pandemic.
The Pfizer vaccine was developed using mRNA technology which is a genetic material that encodes the viral protein of the virus.
“If the government adopts a vaccine containing no forbidden components, then we do not need this (Halal) ruling, and the vaccine should be permissible in the first place. if we are certain the vaccine will save lives then it is Halal,” Mr Trad explained.
AFIC is the head body under which Islamic institutions, mosques and representatives operate in states and territories across the country.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration has approved both, the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, and the national vaccination plan is set to start on February 22.
“Some vaccines have higher efficiency than others,” Mr Trad said.
“The government’s reserved approach should convince the community that the government is determined to provide the best vaccines available.”
News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.