Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy
Eswatini: A religious COVID-19 vaccine mission like no other
(First published in The Jerusalem Post on 17th November 2021)
When Israel’s principal global development NGO, IsraAid, approached me and asked if I would be willing to participate in their efforts to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to the people of the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), I was a little surprised.
My doctorate is in philosophy so medical advice is definitely beyond my scope and I thought it may have been a mix-up. Surely the people of Eswatini need physicians and nurses working on the ground when it comes to vaccinations?
The reality is that the roll-out in Eswatini, as in many parts of Africa, required a multi-dimensional approach. Faith has a crucial part to play in this. For much of Eswatini’s population, religious and tribal leaders are the primary source of authority when it comes to making decisions in all areas of life, including on healthcare. Initiating a productive dialogue with the nation’s most influential leaders is thus crucial to the success of the vaccination campaign and they requested to meet a “rabbi from the Holy Land.”
IsraAid hoped that Israel’s successful vaccination campaign, including among the country’s diverse religious populations, would serve as inspiration for local leaders in Eswatini. This would lead them to get vaccinated and, in turn, encourage their congregants and communities to consider accepting the vaccines on offer. By using the shared language of faith to articulate a deeper vision of how the vaccine is a life-saving blessing to our families, friends, communities and the world, the chances of success would be higher.
However, since the beginning of IsraAid’s efforts to secure and deliver the life-saving coronavirus vaccines to the people of Eswatini, they have reported high levels of skepticism. When vaccine supplies were secured and imported amid the massive global demand, the authorities found that most citizens were not interested in taking the jab. For many, concerns stemmed from religious fears of getting vaccinated that were being exacerbated by the spread of misinformation. In this context, I flew earlier this month with IsraAid to address a large conference of over 100 faith and tribal leaders in Mbabane, the capital of Eswatini. My message was clear: our shared religious tradition urges us to preserve and sanctify human life. Contrary to the circulation of falsehoods, the speed at which experts delivered and distributed a working vaccine is a true blessing and has already saved millions of lives around the globe. Therefore, getting vaccinated and encouraging others to get vaccinated – as we have seen in Israel – is a sacred task that we all must work toward.
While the reception to my message was warm and IsraAid continues its inspirational humanitarian efforts in conjunction with Eswatini’s Health Ministry to administer vaccines to people across the country, there remains much work to do. To date, not enough people have taken the vaccine. Dispelling myths – both those rooted in religious language and beyond – must continue to be a priority around the world if we are to defeat the pandemic together.
There is also a broader conclusion from my experience in Eswatini. While in many western societies today, faith is often dismissed as a relic of the past with nothing useful to say about some of the pressing issues of the day, it is a refreshing reminder that there are billions around the world for whom religion is their primary moral compass. A laser-sharp focus on the messages of our scriptures and sacred texts of our religious traditions can be a force for good in bringing about a healthier path for us all in our complex modern world.