The Christian and Muslim communities in Barbados are opposed to mandating COVID-19 vaccination for their congregations but are strongly encouraging their members to get the jab out of a love for others.
At the same time, they have expressed concern that some members of faith-based organisations are refusing to comply with the established COVID-19 protocols, thereby creating problems for the wider community and putting others at risk.
Second vice president of the Barbados Christian Council (BXC) Reverend Erma Ambrose and Secretary of the Muslim Association of Barbados Suleiman Bulbulia agreed that moral suasion over forcing the vaccines on members was the best approach, as they participated in a virtual panel discussion organised by the Men’s Ministry at Cave Hill Wesleyan Holiness Church on Tuesday night.
“We as faith-based organisations are not mandating vaccines. The only mandate that we have as Christians… is the command to love,” said Reverend Ambrose, whose organisation represents the Methodist Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic Church, Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Spiritual Baptist, the Salvation Army, the Church of God, and the Anglican Church.
“But, by extension, when we love each other then we do things to protect each other; we make the sacrifice which is necessary…. I believe I can say that all of the leaders of the churches that I just mentioned have been vaccinated fully….. and I say ‘I believe’ because it is still a personal thing. So, I have not asked but I know that some are and I believe that all have. And based on the fact that the churches have a number of members within their gamut, then they will perhaps, by moral suasion, be able to lead persons in a particular direction.
“To my knowledge, the majority of the leaders are encouraging their membership to get vaccinated and it is not a mandate but it is by mere encouragement,” she added.
Reverend Ambrose stressed that it was important for leaders to “get all the facts” so they understand and help their members understand the various aspects of the pandemic and vaccination.
She noted that while Christians lean on God for healing, they must recognise that there is a connection between healing and science.
“I believe many persons who are non-vaxxers and who are perhaps Christian as well would say that Jesus healed persons and they’re looking for that automatic healing, that touch. And so, yes, God will heal me and God will protect me… but we have to understand, as faith-based organisations, all wisdom, all knowledge come from God,” she contended.
“So those healthcare professionals are God’s hands extended. We have prayed for deliverance, we have prayed for some kind of remedy or intervention with regard to COVID-19 and the vaccine has appeared as one of them, and so our leaders are encouraging the members to adhere to the protocols and now, additionally, take the vaccine, but it is still your personal choice.
“But with this same love that I started to talk about, being persons who love one another…it has to fall into that gambit where you love yourself and not only do you love you but you love the people around you and because you love the people around you, you take care of them. So you take the vaccine not only for you but for those around you,” the BXC official stressed.
Bulbulia, who noted that the Muslim community recorded a significant number of COVID-19 cases recently, with four deaths recorded in the last two weeks, agreed that believers should also put their trust in the men and women in the medical field to whom God has given the relevant knowledge.
“You have those individuals who don’t think that we need to follow any protocols or we shouldn’t be following protocols within the church or within the mosque, or within our setting, because God didn’t tell us to do so and rely on God’s healing and so on. Yes, we do, for sure we do, but… there is a saying, ‘believe in God but tie your camel first’. That comes from our groups in Arabia where you don’t just leave your camel running around, you tie the camel and you trust in God that the camel will be there when you come back. So that is what we need to do and that is the kind of messaging we have to get out there,” he said.
Bulbulia, like Reverend Ambrose, also resisted vaccine mandates.
He said faith-based organisations want to be able to cater to their entire congregations and not alienate those who are still vaccine hesitant.
“I think at the leadership level we recognise fully what needs to be done. The message needs to go out that we have to follow the protocols, we have to get involved in making sure that we do the right thing, and many are coming around to the idea that vaccines must take place. But I’m not sure we’ve got to the point yet where we’re going to mandate it from our level, but that is a discussion that has to happen and it has to happen in a wider context of what is going on in society,” he said.
The Muslim leader suggested that trying to force the vaccine on people could do harm.
“My challenge with mandating in this manner is that it does open up the door – and we have witnessed this – for people to do things that are not the correct things to do. We have found that within various of our faith-based communities, where the established places of worship want to follow the rules, want to establish those protocols, but then you have individuals who say ‘no, we don’t want to abide by that, we’re going to do our own thing in secret somewhere under cover’ and I think that that’s a challenge we are facing. I think the churches are facing that challenge as well, where you find small groups getting together and doing that.
“So I think that the conversation has to be beyond mandating or enforcing. It has to be, as Reverend [Ambrose] has been pushing the whole night – love for your brother what you love for yourself. Because you have those individuals in our society who don’t respect others and they just think that their concept or their thinking is what it should be and should carry forward and that, sadly, is also found in faith-based communities,” Bulbulia said.
He also pointed out that vaccine mandates can create divisions.
“COVID has brought a lot of challenges, not only economically and socially but psychologically as well. So people are dealing with a lot of different things and if we put another layer of that, which is vaccines, and it starts to bring another level of ‘ism’ and ‘skism’ in society then that brings another level of departure from one another and we don’t want to have that. We want to make sure that we are talking to each other…. We need to get those facts out there so that people know what is happening,” the Muslim leader said.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Anton Best, who was also on Tuesday night’s panel, stressed the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, as he expressed disappointment at seeing so many people being vaccine hesitant.
He said many of those who were against immunization did not come to the conclusion based on science, and he insisted that it has been proven that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Government’s vaccination programme started in February this year and about 41 per cent of the total population is now vaccinated. However, when the eligible population is taken into account, about 60 per cent is vaccinated.
Dr Best said while the initial aim was to vaccinate 70 to 80 per cent of the population in order to achieve herd immunity that figure must now be significantly higher because the Delta variant is so contagious.
“We now have a highly infectious variant that does not respect a lot of boundaries and, unfortunately, there is almost no concept of herd immunity because of how highly-infectious this variant is. We have to get closer to north of 95 per cent vaccinated for herd immunity, which is at the same level of measles,” he said.
“This is a highly transmissible, potentially deadly infectious disease.” (DP)