In an echoey church hall in Quthing District, faith leaders from various Christian denominations settle into the wooden pews, taking care to sit more than two metres apart. The Anglican, Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders - among others - are equipped with a fresh notepad and pen provided by the Christian Council of Lesotho.
The workshop begins with a prayer, with facemasked heads bowed. After a resounding “Amen”, it commences.
For the next six hours, not only will these notepads be filled with information about Covid-19 safety measures and the vaccine from presentations delivered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Ministry of Health, but also notes from the free-flowing discussions sprouting from the constant Q&A sessions.
The campaign has been funded by the WHO Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund.
“We tried anything and everything in our capacity as health professionals and failed because of the resistance [against the Covid-19 vaccine] that we faced from our community members,” says Baroane Phenethi, Lesotho’s national Covid-19 risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) manager, who leads the workshop.
“We had to come up with a better strategy by concentrating on the gatekeepers, the people we can call the voice of the voiceless. These individual church leaders have around 1,000 followers each, so we can reach the ears of many people.”
So far, eight workshops have taken place with religious leaders in Lesotho, where in July, a survey conducted by WHO and Unicef found that over 85 per cent of the Kingdom’s health workers reported widespread misconceptions around the Covid-19 vaccine.
About 9 in 10 people in Lesotho are Christian, with the Church providing over 40 per cent of the country’s health services.
“Among religious believers, especially Christians, part of our biggest concern was how the vaccine was equated to a mark of the beast,” says Liphapang Monesa, program manager of the Christian Council of Lesotho.
The “mark of the beast” described in the New Testament Book of Revelation indicates an allegiance to Satan and has been invoked by some Christian preachers in the pandemic to warn followers off taking the vaccine.
Father James Ralebakeng from the Anglican Church says he too believed that the vaccine had something to do with demons.
“We thought [the vaccine] is how people are trying to kill the nations. We learned today that we must forget about the negativity, journey together and that the vaccine is going to save our lives,” he says from his seat in the yellow-walled church.
Instructions to practice social distancing, maintain airflow and sanitise regularly during services are couched in the language of the Church to inspire adherence to the rules as well as vaccine uptake.
“I can’t imagine seeing a church leader praying in the name of Jesus for healing and then telling people to stop taking their medication – this is evil!” Phenethi says in a raised voice to an enraptured audience.
Our immune systems are soldiers, he says, fighting to protect our health. They need to be trained and given the right armour – the Covid-19 vaccine.
Conveying these ideas to the wider population in Lesotho is a task which will now be shouldered by people like Father Ralebakeng: “From today we learned more about Covid-19 and we as leaders are supposed to teach people about how important the vaccine is.”
One priest notes that remote communities deep in the mountains have yet to be informed about measures to control the pandemic. Phenethi reassures him that these areas will be a part of information campaigns, but churches also have a role to play.
Such is the success of the workshops that some churches have actually volunteered to host vaccination centres.
“All of a sudden we have changed that position to an extent where Church representatives are saying ‘let the health professionals come to my church and vaccinate my congregation.’ That’s a very big win,” says Monesa.
But some church leaders feel that they’re not involved enough in the vaccination roll-out: “Church leaders lead multitudes of people, they have influence but in most districts, we are excluded from committees that lead the fight against Covid-19. Why is this?” he asks.
After almost six hours of honest, open discussion, everyone sits down for lunch, and the sound of chatter fills the air.
“Everyone is very happy,” says Phenethi.
“We have agreed with these leaders that they will act as champions on the advocacy part of Covid-19 related issues in their respective congregations. So we are very proud.”