• Pastor George Mann and wife Pastor Shelley Mann of Bourke Full Gospel Family Fellowship. (Facebook: Bourke Full Gospel Family Fellowship)Source: Facebook: Bourke Full Gospel Family Fellowship
Religious leaders are uniting with health practitioners in First Nations communities in the hopes of countering dangerous conspiracies about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Keira Jenkins

6 Sep 2021 - 5:51 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2021 - 5:53 PM

The first cases of COVID-19 arrived in Bourke last month, and now the virus has spread through the community, with six new cases reported on Monday.

Also spreading within the town is misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Pastor George Mann runs the Full Gospel Family Fellowship Christian church in Bourke with his wife Shelley and said he receives a lot of calls from people fearful of getting the vaccine.

Mr Mann said some of those fears stem from misinformation on Christian social media pages.

“A lot of it is coming from overseas, in America, the anti-vaxxers over there,” he told NITV News.

“Some are worried that they’ll be left with ‘the mark of the beast’ if they get the vaccine, there are people who are saying that the vaccine is made with the bodies of unborn babies.

“Others say they’re worried about microchips… or that they’re trying to wipe out Aboriginal people.

“I just talk to these people one on one and try to reassure them that’s not what’s happening here.”

With cases rising in Bourke and the passing of an unvaccinated Elder from nearby Enngonia, Mr Mann said this misinformation is “very dangerous”.

“There’s about 51 cases in Bourke now and Enngonia also has quite a number of cases,” he said.

“There’s plenty of vaccination clinics, we’re using the church as a vaccination hub. There’s no shortage of vaccines here, it’s just the hesitancy.”

'Talking it through'

Mr Mann has had the COVID-19 vaccination and said this helps when convincing others to do the same.

“After I got the vaccine I got phone calls, people asking if I felt like a sinner after I got it,” he said.

“And I just talk through it with people, one on one.”

Just 21.9 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 16 and over have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus, compared with 38.2 per cent of the wider population.

Western Australia has some of the lowest rates of vaccination among Indigenous people in the country.

Pastor Geoff Stokes lives in the Goldfield region in the tiny community of Ninga Mia, just outside of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.

He’s the leader of the Ninga Mia Fellowship - a Christian church in the town - and he’s concerned about the misinformation circulating in his community and beyond.

“There’s things people hear from one another, and then they tell it to another person,” he said.

“It’s all lies that they see on the internet, on Facebook."

Mr Stokes said he’s been vaccinated and encourages his family, friends and community to do the same.

“I don’t want the blood of my people on my hands for bringing COVID in,” he said.

“As a responsible leader in my community I felt I needed to (get vaccinated).

“Do the right thing for your family, for your community, for your kids and stop listening to the lies.”

'Dangerous misinformation'

Mr Mann and Mr Stokes were part of a meeting of respected Pastors and remote medical professionals on Friday.

Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt and NACCHO chief executive Pat Turner were also in attendance.

Ms Turner said while social media was driving anti-vaccination messages in urban areas, word of mouth remained incredibly powerful in regional and remote settings.

"We need to be aiming towards 100 per cent vaccination rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," she said on Monday.

"It's going to be very challenging in the face of this dangerous misinformation."

Mr Wyatt said rates were increasing but he remains concerned conspiracies and misinformation are stoking fear.

"Our spiritual leaders will be crucial in ensuring positive messages succeed," he said.

"To that end, uniting faith-based and medical messaging will be key to stamping out the dangerous rhetoric and boost vaccine uptake in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities."

For Pastor George Mann, in Bourke, he’s pleased to see religious leaders, health officials, and government all working together on this issue.

“They (government) seem to understand what’s happening and the challenges out this way,” he said.

“...It’s not just the religious leaders on our own, we’re all working together with one common purpose.”

The group is expected to reconvene this week.

Communities with lowest jab rates to be targeted in vaccine blitz
Just 21.86 per cent of the First Nations population aged over 16 has been fully vaccinated.