When Sydney sheikh Shadi Alsuleiman shared a video on Facebook of him getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the Muslim cleric was faced with a barrage of abuse.
Baseless allegations he was being paid, forced into it, or acting against his faith were just some of the comments left by a section of his online followers. Others responded by saying it was an “experimental jab” and “it’s all a hoax”.
Despite the abuse, the cleric said he had no regrets and it only spurred him onwards.
“The fact that some people will remain adamant in their accusations without producing any proof backing their claim [and they will never do so], only inspires me to be stronger and continue moving forward with my conviction that this was the right thing to be done by my religion, myself, my family and my community,” he said in a subsequent post.
And he isn't the only one.
'Stronger together' is the Lebanese Muslim Association's message. Source: LMA
Sydney imam Ibrahim Dadoun also faced a backlash - albeit from a smaller group - when he posted a picture of himself getting vaccinated online.
Mr Dadoun was encouraged to get vaccinated as his wife Wahiba, a registered midwife, has seen first-hand the effects COVID-19 can have on pregnant women. He said the comments came from ignorance.
“They have no idea that they have been vaccinated themselves when they were younger in this country and they've taken the chickenpox vaccine,” he said.
“So a lot of it comes to absolute ignorance; they don't actually know what they're talking about."
Faith and vaccination
Sydney’s Muslim community leaders aren't the only ones concerned about misinformation fuelling vaccine hesitancy.
Like other groups, the Pasifika community has not been immune to dangerous COVID-19 myths circulating on social media and messaging apps, including from influencers.
Jioji Ravulo, a professor of social work and policy studies at Sydney University, said the trend was concerning.
Jioji Ravulo is concerned about misinformation impacting the Pasifika community Source: SBS News
“It is a major issue,” he said.
“I think part of it is to do with people not really understanding how severe COVID-19 is, how safe the vaccines are, and how their spiritual life can cope with the way in which we receive treatments for the current pandemic.”
Mr Ravulo said there was an assumption among some in the community that faith would be able to protect or heal them from COVID-19.
Sydney reverend Alimoni Taumoepeau, who was born in Tonga and has been a Uniting Church minister for 22 years, said he was alarmed by how widespread the anti-vaccination stance appeared to be.
“That is a huge concern because in our communities I learned that there have been a lot of families who have been sick [with] the virus, and some of them have been in critical stage,” he said.
He is also concerned about conspiracy theories that use faith to contradict government health messaging.
A COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Bankstown Sports Club in Sydney. Source: AAP
“Some of them [they believe] that this is the end of the world, or this is powerful countries trying to bring a ‘one-world philosophy. Others believe that it is not a biblically-based vaccine and is not in the Bible.”
“I do need to encourage them that they are their brothers' and sisters’ keeper, they are responsible to keep each other safe, and that is why vaccine has been provided for us, because we believe it is a gift from God to each and every one of us.”
Not just minority groups
Western Sydney Labor MP Jason Clare has also sounded the alarm about misinformation circulating in his electorate.
“People are getting rubbish on their phones from WhatsApp groups telling them that the virus has a chip in it, or that it's an experimental drug, or that you could die if you take it ... people are getting the same sort of rubbish messages on WeChat,” he said.
“This is a battle online and in cyberspace as much as it is in getting that message out to people on our radio stations.”
Pharmacist Quinn On (in white) helping members of the community get their COVID jabs at his pharmacy. Source: SBS News
Cabramatta pharmacist Quinn On said COVID-19 misinformation on Chinese social media app WeChat has surged in recent months in the local community, but he's also worried about a lack of clear information coming from official sources direct to Sydney’s multicultural communities.
“There is a lot of language barriers here so people do get their news from overseas,” he said.
Fairfield City Counsellor Dai Le notes COVID-19 misinformation is not an issue solely affecting minority groups, but the community at large.
She too says there is a lack of coherent official information being provided to those who speak a language other than English.
“The lack of information towards our whole public and also the multicultural community has obviously added to people going on social media, finding their own source of information and listening to friends and accessing information from the wider internet network,” she said.
A small survey of around 199 people from culturally diverse communities in metropolitan Sydney and two regional NSW locations, conducted before the Sydney outbreak, found there were misconceptions among some about the vaccine.
The NSW Council of Social Service survey said they included “concerns that the vaccine will make you sick or change your DNA”, that “vaccine is a form of government control”, as well as fears about the “perceived lack of ‘proper’ testing of the vaccine prior to rollout”.
Some communities are managing to combat misinformation with facts and grassroots campaigns.
Almost every day, members of the Pacific Islander community post a video of themselves on Facebook from their homes or their backyards to share with family and friends about the importance of getting vaccinated, as well as following COVID-19 health orders.
The video campaign, organised by the Core Pacific Collective Group, is being shared online by the NSW Council for Pacific Communities.
The videos have been noticed by NSW Health, which is now in talks with the Pacific groups to further assist in broadening the campaign.
Mr Ravulo says their efforts would be assisted if Pacific Islander celebrities, influencers, actors or sports stars also used their platforms to mobilise the community and help dispel some of the myths around vaccines.
A pop-up vaccination clinic outside Lakemba Mosque at the weekend. Source: LMA
The Lebanese Muslim Association (LMA) regularly conducts live Q&A sessions online featuring doctors and health professionals to debunk myths circulating in the community.
It also features video logs of community members filming their vaccine journey and hosts pop-up vaccination clinics around Western Sydney. On Saturday, there were queues stretching to the end of the street at a pop-up clinic outside Lakemba Mosque.
“So far, we've had some negativity, but we’ve had also overwhelming support,” vaccine hub organiser Ahmad Malas said.
Sometimes it just takes one person to change the opinion of others, he said.
“You'll find in some families, there might be one or two individuals that are really pro getting vaccinated [and] the rest of the family isn't.
"So a lot of people were actually coming to the clinic, not informing their families because they understand the reaction, getting the vaccination and then informing their family members. And then in the afternoon, the whole family comes in and actually gets vaccinated.
"It takes that first step and then other people are seeing the value in getting vaccinated.”
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