Undertakers and rabbis join global fight to promote COVID shootings

In Germany, Lutheran pastors are offering COVID-19 injections inside churches. In Israel’s skeptical ultra-Orthodox community, trusted rabbis are trying to change their minds. And in South Africa, undertakers are taking to the streets to spread the word.

The undertaker’s message: “We are burying too many people.

As the epidemic drags on into a third year, with a worldwide death toll of 5.4 million, vaccine promoters face fear, mistrust, complacency, inconvenience and people who have simply greater concerns than COVID-19.

One day in December, a convoy of hearses with howling sirens drove to a shopping mall in the sprawling Soweto suburb of Johannesburg.

“Vaccinate, vaccinate!” Said Vuyo Mabindisi of Vuyo Funeral Services as he handed out brochures on how to avoid COVID-19. “We don’t want to see you come to our offices. “

Several people responded with curiosity and questions, while others continued to shop.

With a population of 60 million, South Africa has reported more than 3 million cases of COVID-19, including more than 90,000 deaths. These are the highest figures in Africa. Only around 40% of South Africa’s adult population is fully vaccinated, and this is one of the best levels on the continent. After a choppy start, there is plenty of vaccine.

Thabo Teffo, a 32-year-old bank worker, was among those seeking to be shot recently at a church in Soweto.

“It encouraged me to go ahead and get the vaccine for my peace of mind and to protect my family,” he said.

Rupali Limaye, a behavior specialist who studies global vaccine reluctance at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said community-level efforts can resonate more than impersonal media campaigns.

German pastor Christoph Herbst believes giving COVID-19 injections in an environment that looks more familiar than medical settings may help. This is why he and several other Lutheran pastors in the Saxony region have contacted an aid group to offer shots inside their churches, despite sometimes violent anti-vaccination protests in recent weeks. Some pastors have been criticized and even threatened.

“We believe we have a responsibility that is beyond us,” said Herbst, of St. Petri’s Church in the eastern town of Chemnitz. “We’re not doctors and we’re not professionals. But we have the space and we have volunteers who can organize something like that.

Herbst opened the wrought-iron gates of St. Petri on a recent vaccination day and sighed in relief when he saw the long line of people waiting in the cold.

Pensioners Hannelore Hilbert and her husband came to get vaccinated in time for the holidays.

“Last year’s Christmas was really sad. We were all alone, ”said Hilbert, 70, who was eager to celebrate with at least some of his five grandchildren in person – not on Skype, like last year.

West-made vaccines have been shown to be extremely safe and remarkably effective overall in preventing COVID-19-related deaths and hospitalizations, and experts say this appears to be true even amid the spread of the highly contagious variant. of omicron. Health officials warn that low vaccination rates give the virus more opportunities to mutate into new variants.

Saxony has the lowest vaccination rate in Germany and a high number of COVID-19.

Herbst said many opponents are concerned about the possible side effects, feel they are under too much pressure from the authorities, or do not like the measures taken by the government. Some feel discriminated against as East Germans because all their hopes have not been realized 30 years after the fall of communism.

“It’s important that there is a space where we listen to each other without immediately falling into condemnation,” Herbst said.

Chicago community activist Caesar Thompson uses the same approach when he knocks on doors in troubled black neighborhoods hit hard by the virus.

Thompson, 44, is a “vaccine ambassador” hired by city health officials. He said the idea is not to force or cuddle. Instead, he said, he offers information, answers questions and lets people know he can sign them up to receive snaps in or near their homes.

Thompson has a salesman’s gift of chatter, and he’s used it in churches, train stations, parks, flea markets – almost anywhere people congregate.

Thompson said it helped that he was “just a guy on the streets.” “You might even know me if you live in my neighborhood,” he said.

In the communities it targets, the coronavirus is often not the most pressing concern, Thompson said. For residents of crime-plagued neighborhoods who don’t have jobs or health insurance and struggle to feed their families, “COVID is low on the list for them,” he said. .

In conservative Wyoming, the vaccine can be a tough sell. Campbell County commissioners have voted against using federal dollars for a vaccine education campaign, fearing it looks like a warrant. The county’s vaccination rate is around 27%.

Gabby Watson, 23, of Gillette, said she was not planning on getting the vaccine “because I’m really healthy and taking care of myself. I’m just not on top of it. risk of COVID. I just don’t see the rationale for me to get the vaccine.

She said the US government is pushing COVID-19 vaccines too hard.

“They push more people away and create more of that thought bubble, ‘What are you trying to do with my body? What are you trying to do with my freedom? Watson said. “And that’s not the right direction to take either. “

Suspicion of secular authorities is endemic in the Israeli community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. They avoid many of the pitfalls of modern life, follow a strict interpretation of Judaism, and rely on rabbis to guide many life decisions. While some rabbis encouraged vaccination, others took a less aggressive approach.

The ultra-Orthodox have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Israel and have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Today, in the face of omicron, Israeli officials “are going on the offensive,” said Avraham Rubinstein, the mayor of Bnei Brak, the country’s largest ultra-Orthodox city. They are deploying mobile vaccination clinics and recruiting leading rabbis from the community.

Yossi Levy, a 45-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew, recovered from the virus earlier this year, as did his eight children and his wife. He has repeatedly booked and canceled appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It’s not something urgent. I am not opposed to it. It’s just laziness, ”Levy said.

While Israel’s vaccination rates for the second dose in the general population hover around 63% and the booster at 45%, in the ultra-Orthodox community the numbers are about half that.

Ultra-Orthodox – 13% of the Israeli population – tend to live in crowded neighborhoods, with large families in small apartments, where the disease can spread quickly. Synagogues, the centerpiece of social life, bring people together in small spaces. In addition, half of this population is under 16 and only recently became eligible for vaccination.

Gilad Malach, who heads the ultra-Orthodox agenda for a Jerusalem think tank, said there is a “double fear: fear of the state and fear of science. There is no fundamental trust in these entities “.

In India, complacency contributes to the low second injection rate among the population of 1.4 billion people: 40% are fully vaccinated and about 19% have received only one injection.

The country has recorded nearly 35 million cases and more than 450,000 deaths.

In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, Rohit Kanojia received his first blow in August but did not get the second.

“I forgot,” the 23-year-old said, adding that people are no longer afraid of COVID-19. People roam without masks and no one maintains social distancing, he said. “Life is almost normal.

Jeet Bahadur, a 45-year-old cook, received his second injection months later at a Sikh temple in New Delhi. For him, like many others in India trying to make a living in a crippled economy, the virus just wasn’t high on his priority list.


Associated Press editors Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg; Mead Gruver in Fort Collins, Colorado; Kirsten Grieshaber in Chemnitz, Germany; Anupam Nath in Guwahati, India; Krutika Pathi, Rishi Lekhi and Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi; Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India; and Tia Goldenberg in Bnei Brak, Israel, contributed to this report.

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