Malaysia uses mosque sermons to overcome Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy

Malaysia hopes to achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 by February 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - As a committee member at his local mosque in Malaysia's Selangor state, Mr Rasdi Zin is more than familiar with the imam's sermons during Friday prayers advising Muslims on how to go about their daily lives during the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent weeks however, he has noticed an emphasis on vaccination, with the imam encouraging the congregation to register for and receive inoculations.

"For the past two weeks, we received insightful knowledge on how to respond to a deadly pandemic. We were told... to take preventive measures like stay at home, wear a mask and take the Covid-19 vaccine," the 64-year-old retiree told The Straits Times.

"We were reminded not to be selfish or reckless, and to always protect each other, as we live in a society," he added.

These sermons are part of a ground-level effort by many mosques and suraus across the country to overcome vaccine concerns among the majority Muslim Malay population.

Mr Hairol Azmi Khairuddin, Selangor Islamic affairs department's assistant director of the khutbah (sermon) unit, confirmed that sermons were targeted at vaccination.

"Sermons on the Covid-19 vaccine have been delivered twice (in Selangor) - the first was read to the congregation when the country received its first batch of vaccine (on Feb 20). We pay attention to issues that require further clarification," he told ST.

Mr Rasdi said his hesitancy was partly driven by doubts about the vaccines' efficacy rate, as well as some Muslims' belief that vaccines are haram, or not permissible in the religion.

"I'm not anti-vaccine but I was hesitant partly because I do not know whether it is okay to take it. I was confused. So having someone like the imam, who is a respected figure and well-versed in the Islamic law, advising on it helps to address my concerns and also restores my confidence," he said.

The Malaysian government began efforts to allay these concerns months ago, with Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri announcing on Dec 23 that the Covid-19 vaccine is permissible for Muslims.

The religious authorities also issued a national fatwa ruling that the vaccine is "harus" (a must) and "wajib" (compulsory) for those people designated by the government.

The country hopes to achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 by February 2022, its target date for inoculating 80 per cent of its 32 million population.

But while Malaysia is ramping up its vaccine portfolio, vaccine registrations have moved at a slower pace than expected. Only 3.8 million people have registered for vaccination so far, just 14 per cent of the total target.

Religious officials in Perak state have taken it upon themselves to educate the masses and combat misinformation by anti-vaccine groups.

Last Sunday (March 7), state executive councillor Mohd Akmal Kamaruddin said the Perak government would cooperate with the state's Islamic religious department to deliver sermons on the importance of vaccination.

"We will continue to ensure the topic is emphasised to create awareness of taking the vaccines to protect ourselves and others around us," he told reporters. "This is among the efforts taken by the state government to provide accurate information on vaccines, against false news spread by anti-vaccine groups," he added.

Perlis, the country's northernmost state, has followed suit.

"The state has several times included the topic and Covid-19 in our (Friday prayer) sermons. This is a command from the state ruler, Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Putra Jamalullail, who wants the matter to be raised," Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin told ST.

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