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Vaccination, Fake News and the role of Religious Actors

The timing couldn’t have been better: On January 20th, when the new US-President Joe Biden right after his inauguration would sign the executive order for the US to rejoin World Health Organization (WHO), PaRD hosted an event with WHO. The theme was COVID-19 responses and opportunities for collaboration with religious actors.
Photo by Gustavo Fring by Pexels

The online event was initiated by the PaRD work-stream on Health (SDG 3) with World Vision International at the frontline. As guest speakers PaRD had invited Ms. Sarah Hess from WHO Health Emergencies Programme as well as Dr. Sally Smith, independent consultant with WHO and Anglican Alliance, having previously worked for 14 years at UNAIDS with focus on Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs). Around 50 attendees from international networks and NGOs listened and discussed questions around vaccination, fake news and new opportunities for collaboration.

The current situation

As of 19 January, there were over 94 million confirmed COVID-19-cases worldwide, with the highest cumulative numbers in USA, India, Brazil, Russian Federation and United Kingdom. There were over 2 million deaths with highest numbers in the US, Brazil, India, Mexico and United Kingdom. The epicentre of the pandemic has been over the course of the last 9-12 months especially in the Americas and Europe, who have borne the brunt of the pandemic in terms of cases and deaths.

Within this situation, Sarah Hess and her colleagues have launched the WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN) to provide people and communities access to the right information at the right time, to make decisions to protect their health. The aim is to address communities based on vocation, trusted leaders and networks and to make WHO as a global network more accessible to communities – also by building a digital platform to build a community of practice.

Critical role of faith communities in the COVID-19 response

There have been numbers of large outbreaks in faith communities during the pandemic. However, WHO also wanted to acknowledge the important role of faith communities in response to COVID-19, Ms. Hess emphasized. Since health crises were disruptive and illness, uncertainty, fear, socio-economic impacts contributed towards a breakdown in social cohesion, trust and solidarity, religious communities could build social cohesion, maintaining networks of trust, delivering very practical steps of service delivery, advocating and looking after the most vulnerable and poor. WHO issued a guidance for religious leaders and Faith-Based communities, trying to reach these existing networks for the amplification of messages and orientation. This was followed by number of briefings across the different faith communities and partners.

In 2021, WHO is forging a more strategic approach on the work with faith communities. Since there are a lot of organizations and networks already working with faith communities, let alone UN partner agencies like UNICEF or UNFPA, WHO didn’t want to duplicate the work but rather align, amplify the good work of others and fill any gaps that might exist. To this end, WHO, in collaboration with faith partners, decided to focus the work in three different areas:

Communities of Practice (COPs)

The COPs were launched by WHO for shaping future collaborations and joint projects with faith actors. They met for the first time on 1st of December and since then meet on a monthly basis. The Communities of Practice are:

1. Joint research and Capacity building

2. Framework for Engagement

3. Communication

According to Sarah Hess, the most urgent need is the work around the roll out of the vaccines globally. It was important to identify research gaps, develop joint proposals and to provide some training for faith leaders e.g. how to communicate around vaccines when they’re faced with vaccine-hesitancy. Furthermore, it was important to decipher the very complex science around vaccines and put it in a way that is easily understandable.

The second community of practice ondeveloping a framework for engagement should institutionalize the engagement with faith communities around COVID-19 so that it is solidified within WHO. For this, the group draws on existing frameworks once developed by partner agencies such as UNAIDS or the Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development.

The third community of practice is around communication with a strong focus on vaccines, especially of vaccines hesitancy The aim is to work together on simplified messages and to create a repository of trusted resources. The group wants to enable a process of listening through the networks to understand what are the concerns that are arising from within the communities, what are the rumours and misinformation and how to better respond to that.

Fake News as a primary area of focus

WHO also has one team that is working with number of organizations that do social listening within the digital sphere, measuring the amount of misinformation and rumours around vaccines that appear all over the world, working with groups of fact checkers as well. WHO also collaborates with some of the big tech companies such as Google and Facebook etc., where they rumours and fake news and provide WHO the opportunity to disseminate accurate information on their platform.

Regarding the work with the physical networks of faith communities, WHO encourages a direct feedback mechanism and hence are informed of concerns in particular community for example when there are certain rumours and concerns around vaccine, that might impact vaccine uptake and acceptance. WHO tries to overcome and address these concerns together with the community. Sarah Hess acknowledged that it was important to first acknowledge the fears of the communities, to listen and understand and then to address these fears with evidence-based information.

Update on vaccine development

As of 19 January, around 64 vaccines against COVID-19 are in development of which 15 are in phase of approval. Additionally, 173 vaccines are in the pre-clinical phase. According to a tracker by Bloomberg, in total 51 countries have started vaccinating their population, as of 19 January global total doses administered is over 46 million. Sarah Hess emphasized the importance of a fair and equitable access to vaccines. For this, WHO has developed a Fair Allocation Framework in collaboration with ACT-Accelerator partners and Member States.

Can we all go back to our normal life once vaccinated?

Neither the Pfizer-BioNTech nor the Moderna vaccine trials tested whether vaccinated people could still transmit COVID-19 to others. We don’t know yet the duration of immunity conferred by the vaccines, Sarah Hess stated. In addition, it would take time to vaccinate everyone. Until that happens and until it’s clear how well the vaccines prevent transmission, other public health and social measures such as physical distancing and wearing of masks would be needed.

Get connected

If you would like to be included in the WHO FBO distribution list to receive regular updates, technical information related to FBO work, to take part in webinars, and contribute to the development or update of guidance relating to religious and faith based organizations, then please subscribe using this link, indicating Faith-Based Organizations as your interest. Please note that you can opt out at any time.

Initiatives by PaRD members

World Council of Churches in the discussion highlighted a paper issued with World Jewish Congress inviting religious leaders to reflect, engage on ethical issues related to global vaccine distribution.

World Vision International is developing a Channels of Hope Vaccine module for faith leaders.

PaRD is a Multistakeholder Partnership that brings together governmental members, multilateral and Civil Society Organizations (CSO) especially with religious background, that is Faith-Based Organizations (FBO) or Faith-Inspired Organizations (FIO). PaRD has different working groups on Health, Gender Equality, Water, Environment and Climate Action and Sustaining Peace. This session was proposed by the Health work-stream, that is also looking for new members within the PaRD community.