Bazezuru church fence-sit on COVID-19 vaccination

President Masisi being blessed by Bazezuru women during the Francistown West BDP candidate launch
President Masisi being blessed by Bazezuru women during the Francistown West BDP candidate launch

FRANCISTOWN: Currently, places of worship in Botswana, a country which is predominantly Christian across all faiths are open to vaccinated and unvaccinated congregants.

When the coronavirus hit Botswana’s shores in March 2020, the government introduced a raft of measures to contain its spread.

Amongst the measures that were implemented was the unpopular declaration of State of Public Emergency (SoE) for the purpose of taking appropriate and stringent initiatives to address the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SoE, which was accompanied by lockdowns, effectively limited the number of people attending social gatherings such as weddings and funerals and the outright ban of congregations at places of worship. Some religious leaders and their followers felt that the measure to totally ban gatherings in places of worship was drastic since they are places where people go to, to be comforted when in distress like during the COVID-19 era. Some even quoted Jesus Christ in Matthew 11: 28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”, as reasons why churches should be reopened. Some pastors even bluntly stated that the continued closure of churches was impoverishing them.

They added that there was no need in the first place to completely close churches since God was the panacea for everything that was happening. After the virus levels decreased and the arrival of vaccines in Botswana took place, the government started to relax some of the virus containment protocols.

The government now allows unlimited number of religious worshippers in any given setting provided they adhere to the protocols (temperature checking, hand sanitising, keeping the recommended social distance and proper wearing of masks). While it is a well-known fact that leaders of Christian denominations in Botswana have publicly urged their members to take coronavirus vaccines, the leadership of Johane Church of God (JCG) is still fence-sitting on the issue.

This is despite various public education efforts that the government has and is undertaking to sensitise the public about the importance of vaccinations. State President Mokgweetsi Masisi has previously announced that the government plans to vaccinate at least 64% of the country’s adult population (18 years and above) by December 2021.

As of December 2, 2021, at least 921, 104 people (39.2% of the total population) in Botswana have at least taken the first dose while 508, 980 (21.6%) are fully vaccinated, as per statistics from the Presidential (COVID-19) Task Force. While the government is making strides to vaccinate its population, some anti-vaxxers and the stance adopted by the “white garments” JCG have the potential to reverse the hard earned gains. When contacted by Mmegi, one of the leaders of JCG in Francistown, Raphael Panganayi, was not forthright on whether JCG encourages its worshippers to vaccinate or not. He stated that the JCG leaves the decision of whether their members should vaccinate or not in the hands of its followers. “The church cannot prevent anyone who wants to vaccinate to do that. The choice of whether to vaccinate or not lies squarely with our congregants. In short, the people will decide to do what they think is good for them,” Panganayi said.

When probed further to clearly explain his position, Panganayi reiterated what he had said. Anti-vaxxers usually cite age, medical reasons, religion, myths, misconceptions and misinformation about vaccines as some of the reasons for not vaccinating. Mmegi premised its questionnaire to Panganayi on the basis that in the past, JCG and the government were at loggerheads over the vaccination of Bazezuru children against measles and polio amongst others on account of religious reasons. In 2017, a research published in the journal of Religion and Health stated that some apostolic churches threatened the success of vaccination programmes which it linked to the direct measles outbreaks between 2009 and 2010 in Southern Africa.

Over the years, the relationship between the government and JOC, which is mostly attended by Bazezuru, has been frosty due to a number of reasons. In the past, the government and the Bazezuru were at loggerheads over the registration of Bazezuru children immediately after birth as required by law and in accordance with international treaties that Botswana is a signatory to.

The government encouraged Bazezuru to register their children based on the fact that some of the Bazezuru mothers delivered their children in their homes. This, the government stated was used for statistical and administrative purposes which made it easier for those children to in future obtain National Registration cards (Omang) which entitles them to benefit from government assistance in various ways. In addition, the government urged the Bazezuru community to deliver children at hospitals because the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (Ministry of Basic Education for emphasis now) continues to demand birth certificates upon registration of children at schools so as to make reference and confirm their true dates of birth.

Furthermore, the government encouraged the Bazezuru community to register children even those who were not born in hospitals at relevant government offices. This was also necessitated by the fact that the 2009 Children’s Act emphasised the need for parents’ names to appear on their childrens’ birth certificates regardless of whether they are married or not.

The issue of free education in public schools was another collision course between the government and some Bazezuru families who because of traditional beliefs did not enroll their children in schools. Some of the Bazezuru families who enrolled their children in schools later withdrew them at primary level before they acquired enough knowledge and socio-emotional skills they need to thrive in future as espoused by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) which Botswana is a signatory to.

However, unlike some of their Batswana peers, most Bazezuru children who dropped out of school at primary level defied the odds. They later became successful entrepreneurs largely because of the business acumen they acquired at home. However in recent times, the tide is seems to be changing since Bazezuru children are attending schools in large numbers.

The practice of not enrolling children or later withdrawing from schools was however not cast in stone because some Bazezuru children excelled at all levels of education even tertiary.

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