Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of religious leaders have held different views and opinions about the virus. Ranging from it being an evil agenda, propaganda and a weapon against the church. While some are compliant and advise their followers to take precautionary measures, others are strongly against it.
These religious perspectives have had a significant impact on how Nigerians view the virus. And this is because Nigeria is a country whose citizens have a huge attachment to religion.
According to Pew Research Centre, Nigeria is one of the most religious nations in the world. It has some of the highest number of committed Christians and Muslims anywhere on the planet.
Bishop David Oyedepo, the general overseer of the Living Faith Church also known as Winners Chapel International is one religious leader who holds strong opinions about the virus and publicly declares his denial of its existence.
The Bishop’s orientation about the COVID-19 pandemic is one that is at variance with medical projections and health guidelines to protect people from the deadly virus.
Fact-checkers have been on their toes steadily debunking claims put out by the Bishop during church services, yet it seems the preacher has a bank of claims to steadily discredit the existence of the virus.
Claim: COVID-19 is a lie and the vaccine is bad.
This particular spiritual leader has been preaching COVID-19 disinformation since the outbreak of the virus in 2020.
Using a keyword search on google and across multiple social media platforms. These searches included: Oyedepo, COVID-19, Malaria, Vaccine, Living Faith Church. The presence of the COVID-19 mis/disinformation content itself was not the sole point of analysis, as user engagement — shares, likes, views, comments — also provided valuable insight into the spread of content containing mis or disinformation about COVID-19.
On most of the pastor’s preaching which is always streamed on its YouTube handle with over 370,000 subscribers, He claims that people are being deceived, that COVID-19 is just like malaria and that the vaccines are deadly and untested.
These are some of his recent claims:
On new year day, 2021, 2 hours 19 minutes into a YouTube video that has had over 150,000 views; the pastor said that there is a force behind COVID-19 promoting the fear of the virus. He went ahead to say there is nothing in the virus.
“I can tell you as a prophet, there is nothing in it, so anyone that is being deceived as a victim of COVID-19, be free from the fear of it”.
On 17 April, 2021 the Bishop claimed people were being forced to take the vaccine and that a woman got down after taking the vaccine.
“I have never seen a generation where you force people to take vaccines. It is inhuman; it is immoral sir. I’m not a lawyer but I don’t think it is legal. You can’t come to my house and want to give me an injection,” Oyedepo said.
During the church’s 40th anniversary celebration on May 9, 2021, Oyedepo yet again said that the COVID-19 virus was “deadly and untested”. In the Youtube video that streamed live on 9th, May 2021, with over 150,000 views, the pastor told his followers to ignore promptings to take the vaccine, saying any attempt to vaccinate people in church is an “insult and an assault”.
The World Health Organisation, WHO defines Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as an infectious disease caused by a newly discovered coronavirus that spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Following this backdrop and speaking on some of the claims made by the Bishop, David John, a family medical consultant, said it would be “foolhardy” at this time to see COVID-19 as a myth or liken it to malaria because there are clear symptoms and indications that make them distinct from each other.
John said he has treated COVID-19 and malaria patients and can categorically say that “they have similar symptoms but are not the same and one disease.”
“COVID-19 is not malaria,” he said.
“We have seen patients who presented with symptoms of COVID-19. In the centre where I practice, there are reports of laboratory tests, and several people have been tested. Many people are even in management for COVID-19, so it would be foolhardy at this point to say that COVID-19 is a myth.”
The medical expert said that there are distinct symptoms that differentiate COVID-19 from malaria such as loss of smell which you naturally won’t find in malaria.
“It is different from malaria even though the symptoms can look alike….but there are symptoms that are classic for particular disease and you can only see them in COVID-19, like the loss of smell, cough, fever of more than 38°c, history of contact with somebody that has COVID-19.
“In malaria there is no history of contact with an infected person, so it is not malaria, malaria is fever, feeling unwell, general body weakness, hardly will a person with malaria come down with a cough except if they have an existing upper respiratory tract infection.”
Speaking on the claim that COVID-19 is propaganda, the medical expert said the virus is real because he has seen and treated patients with the virus.
“I don’t agree that COVID-19 is propaganda, it is something that is real even in the international world, it is real. We have treated patients with corona, there is no deception in it.”
In April, the National Primary Health Care Development Agency said that “Out of over a million persons given the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria, 8,439 persons have suffered mild adverse effects following immunisation, and 52 persons have moderate to severe adverse effects on receiving the jab,”
However, there has not been any recorded death from the vaccine. Also, the WHO makes sure to certify any vaccines fit for use and also tracks the process of testing and trial.
The rate at which people are willing to believe the existence of the virus or even take the vaccine is not encouraging. This is not far-fetched from the fact that their religious leaders assure them of ‘divine healing and protection’.
A good number of Nigerians know that the virus is real, but due to the influence of these religious leaders, they are however living in denial but believing in divine healing and protection from the virus as ‘sold’ to them by their religious leaders.
As of 12, June 2021, Nigeria had recorded over 167, 000 cases of the virus, over 163, 000 have been discharged while about 2117 persons have died from the virus.
But in a country of over 200 million people, only over one and half million persons have either received the first dose or the two doses of the vaccine.
According to medical experts like John, the virus is real in contrast to what religious leaders like Oyedepo are teaching their followers.
This report was produced as part of the Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme with support from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), in partnership with the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and Africa Uncensored.