Shift in attitude to COVID-19 vaccine

·3-min read

Where COVID-19 is spreading the fastest in suburban Melbourne, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy have also taken hold.

But a long campaign by medical experts and local leaders has started to shift attitudes.

The Islamic Council of Victoria has been running online vaccine information seminars for months, giving hundreds of people the chance to have their questions answered by health professionals.

Council president Adel Salman says he has noticed a change in recent weeks among the state's Muslim community, towards getting a jab.

"A lot of people who were sitting on the fence, skeptical, concerned and afraid - they're now accepting the science and there is a need to do it," he told AAP.

"There are still the hardcore people - skeptics, conspiracy theorists - and you'll never change their mind. They are in every community."

The council stepped in after government outreach at the start of the pandemic wasn't making the cut.

"A lot of the information was overwhelming. They could not understand it," Mr Salman said.

"It wasn't getting through. Since then things have improved considerably."

According to 2016 census data, Meadow Heights (41.2 per cent), Campbellfield/Coolaroo (41), Fawkner (32), Broadmeadows (30.9), and Dandenong (29.3) have the highest concentration of Muslims in Greater Melbourne.

The Hume local government area, which takes in Broadmeadows, Campbellfield, Coolaroo, Meadow Heights and part of Fawkner, had the lowest full vaccination rate in the state at 26 per cent as of last Sunday.

Greater Dandenong isn't faring much better at 27.9 per cent, the third-worst coverage of any Victorian LGA.

As cases soared in the west over the past seven days, a pop-up vaccination hub was set up at the Australian Islamic Centre in Newport.

Receiving a first Pfizer dose at the mosque on Friday was software engineer Asif Javed, who had several infected family members in Pakistan after they attended a funeral.

"There's a lot of rumours about the vaccines and even I was a bit nervous three days ago," he told AAP.

But Western Health staff and a recent Zoom session with local leaders eased his vaccine concerns.

"My whole motivation was: I don't care about my life. The most important thing was I should not be the one person who carries the virus and infects others," Mr Javed said.

The mosque pop-up follows a successful pilot testing/vaccination clinic at Al-Taqwa College last month, after the Truganina school again became the centre of another COVID-19 outbreak.

Mr Salman said the community response to the outbreak had been outstanding and its "intensive" education campaign with Muslim Health Professionals Australia was helping more people make an informed choice.

"You have a lot of voices in the Muslim community now like (retired AFL player) Bashar Houli who are getting the word out there," he said.

"Our role is not to be a mouthpiece for government. It's to get the information out there."

The Islamic council's cause was further aided in the past week when the Victorian government announced it was among a score of organisations to share $1 million to boost health vaccination messaging.

Mr Salman was also among the group of community leaders to sign an open letter on Wednesday, pleading for Pfizer vaccines to be redirected to Melbourne's COVID-hit northern suburbs.

Their call was answered on Sunday as the federal government confirmed it would send an extra 417,000 Pfizer and Moderna doses to Victoria as part of a three-week blitz of the city's north and west.

During the pandemic, the Islamic council has ramped up its food hamper program for struggling families and is delivering 50 to 100 a week.

Mr Salman said the need for the hampers has been more acute during the latest lockdown.

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