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Religious Leaders Had To Fight Disinformation To Get Their Communities Vaccinated

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israel and the United Kingdom are out in front. They are among the top countries in the world in terms of getting their populations vaccinated. But to get there, they first had to combat rumors about the COVID-19 vaccines in faith and minority communities. Well, our correspondents have been tracking how faith leaders played a role in that battle and what lessons we might learn. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London, and Daniel Estrin's in Jerusalem. Hey there you two.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: Frank, I'm going to let you kick us off. What do we know about vaccine hesitancy in the U.K.?

LANGFITT: Yeah. Well, here in the United Kingdom, the populations that were most hesitant were South Asian - people of South Asian descent and Black Britons. There's historic distrust of government here by these groups, have documented prejudices against them. And of course, their ancestors lived under the British Empire. And also, when you looked at some of the false claims that you would see on the Internet, they seemed almost tailored to some of these groups. For instance, the idea that the vaccine had pork products in it, which is, first of all, not true, and second of all, certainly against Islam.

KELLY: Daniel, how about in Israel?

ESTRIN: Well, I looked at ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities. And there were many illnesses and deaths there, but many communities completely ignored lockdown and distancing rules. I mean, some rabbis even said lockdowns were a conspiracy against their religion and against their way of life, which is very communal. So there was really skepticism from the start, and that was fertile ground for a lot of false rumors about the vaccine.

KELLY: OK, so a huge challenge to overcome. Start with political leaders. What did the government try to do to persuade these communities? You got to get past this. You got to take the vaccine. Daniel, let's stay with you.

ESTRIN: Well, it was quite easy for the government to persuade the general Israeli public. The message was get vaccinated and you get your lives back. Convincing the ultra-Orthodox community was a very big struggle because ultra-Orthodox Jews take their cues from rabbis and not necessarily from the government. There were many rumors about the vaccines, and rabbis were hesitant to tell their followers to get vaccinated. And there were even some rabbis with YouTube videos warning against the vaccines. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because he depends on ultra-Orthodox political support, his government didn't crack down enough on these communities with the lockdowns. And so it was just an uphill battle to get them to accept the vaccine.

KELLY: And Frank?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I think by the time the vaccine rolled out here, the government had been pretty discredited. If you remember, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had downplayed the pandemic early on, ended up in the ICU with COVID himself. The government wasn't in a really strong position, and I think to some degree, they really needed the help of the faith leaders.

KELLY: All right. So that sounds similar in both countries. How did that unfold? What was the messaging from faith leaders?

LANGFITT: Well, particularly here, the imams had a variety of methods. But one thing is they would put together webinars with very tailored messages. I'll give you one example. There's an imam that I spoke with in Leeds named Qari Asim. And he would bring in a tech expert to talk to young people who in particular were more likely to believe that 5G spreads COVID, which again, of course, is false. In other cases dealing with individual families, he was almost like a social worker. He did a Zoom session with one family where at least one member was actually fighting his mother getting vaccinations. And this was after his father had already died of COVID. And these were some of the questions that Qari asked him when they were talking on the Zoom session.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QARI ASIM: Where is he getting this information from and how much does he believe in this information? And then I dissected the arguments that he was presenting by using the scientific information, by using the expert opinion. And there's a principle in the Quran which says, if you do not know, ask the expert.

ESTRIN: It's so interesting, you know, listening to that imam - this is Daniel here - embracing the scientific experts because I found that in Israel, too. I spoke with the ultra-Orthodox consultant for the government whose job it was to get the ultra-Orthodox community on board with vaccines. And he said, I need to convince the rabbis to endorse the vaccines, and then they will influence their own followers. And he didn't need to quote from the Torah about the holiness of saving lives. What he knew was that the rabbis wanted to know the science. And so he had top health officials sit with rabbis for hours and debunk all the rumors out there. And then these leading rabbis just came out in favor of vaccines.

KELLY: So fascinating and makes total sense. There are clearly lessons to be learned here. What would you point to, Daniel, in terms of how this unfolded as a successful campaign to fight vaccine skepticism?

ESTRIN: The government adviser described it as a war. He described a poster war. There were these anonymous anti-vaccine posters in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, and he covered those posters up. He had them covered up with pro-vaccine posters saying things like Israel's leading rabbis are getting vaccinated. What really helped turn the tide was a tragic case of a pregnant woman who died of COVID because she didn't get a chance to get vaccinated. This is her husband, Yehuda Ben Shitrit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YEHUDA BEN SHITRIT: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: What he told me was that his wife's story was a cautionary tale. And the government's campaigns, all the pro-vaccine posters, that did not have the same effect as people seeing four young kids without a mother.

KELLY: Yeah. How about for you, Frank?

LANGFITT: I'd say here in the United Kingdom, it was the power of trusted community leaders. And the imams that I spoke with said what they were very careful to do was not dismiss people's fears, but to engage and listen and then level with them. And this is what Qari said to that guy who didn't want his mother to get vaccinated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASIM: Ultimately, I asked this young man whether he could live with himself if his mother had died due to her not taking the vaccine. And the answer was no.

KELLY: Mom guilt transcends all cultures (laughter) and faith communities, I think a universal message there. Thank you both for your reporting.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Mary Louise.

KELLY: That is NPR's Frank Langfitt in London and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.