By JOEY PETERS
Thursday April 1, 2021
At a recent health event, 16 imams got COVID vaccines in front of cameras from BBC Somali and Universal Somali TV.
Sixteen imams got vaccinated before international cameras at a Minneapolis health clinic on March 18, 2021. Credit: University of Minnesota
While Imam Hassan Ali Mohamud was helping organize more than a dozen of his colleagues to get vaccinated against COVID-19, he thought of a passage from the Qur’an.
Saving one person’s life is equal to saving all of humanity, according to the often cited passage. Which means it’s fairly easy to argue that receiving the vaccine is a religious duty, Hassan said.
Hassan’s role as an imam also provides a unique platform to get this message across. Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet of God, according to Islamic teachings, but he emphasized that imams like himself play an important community leadership role as Islamic scholars. “We are the ones who give an example to follow,” said Hassan, who presides over Islamic Da’Wah Center, a mosque in St. Paul.
So on March 18, Hassan and 15 other imams from around Minnesota gathered at a local health care clinic in Minneapolis. Not only did they get vaccinated against a virus that has wracked their community; they did so on camera, in front of multiple Somali-language media outlets to make their message loud and clear.
The event wasn’t limited to religious leaders. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals affiliated with the Somali Medical Association of America were also on hand. Each person attending the event came with a mission to boost confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine within the local Somali community.
Reports of vaccine hesitancy among some people in the community first came to public attention in the 2010s. Between 2004 and 2014, vaccination rates against measles, mumps, and rubella (often called MMR) dropped from 92 percent to 42 percent in Minnesota Somali children, according to a 2017 report from the British Medical Journal.
The amount of skepticism in the Somali community over the COVID-19 vaccine is unclear. And the current COVID-19 vaccination rate in the community has not been documented.
What is clear, however, is that Black Americans in Minnesota are receiving the vaccine at lower rates than their share of the population, according to state data—a problem that several health experts and community advocates attribute to the state’s unequal distribution of the vaccine.
Hassan and Imam Sharif Mohamed say a portion of their community doesn’t want to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Imam Sharif isn’t new to this discussion: He’s been bringing awareness to vaccines in his community since 2016, when he started publicly discrediting false rumors linking the MMR vaccine to autism.
Doing the same for the COVID-19 vaccine only felt natural to him, he said, and imams can play a unique role. “The community trusts the imams more than maybe anyone else,” said Sharif, who presides over Dar Al-Hijrah in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. “Whether through social media, the mosque, they have a platform that most people don’t have.”
Getting a shot in front of BBC Somali and Universal Somali TV
The vaccination event, which occurred at Community-University Health Care Center in the nearby Ventura Village neighborhood of Minneapolis, took just three weeks to organize. It began as a discussion between a handful of local imams during a conference call, and quickly grew from there.
Sharif, who trained as a chaplain in the M Health Fairview system, used his connections with the local medical community to organize the event. All of the imams who participated were eligible for the vaccine, according to state guidelines.
Eventually, Sharif got in touch with Dr. Roli Dwiveli, chief clinical officer at Community-University Health Care Center (CUHCC). Dwiveli, who has worked with Sharif on similar projects before, said she immediately saw the value of the event. People gain confidence in health issues when they hear it from trusted leaders within their own community.
“I may say something, but if there is not trust in me, people might not take my word for it,” Dwiveli said.
After the imams got their vaccines, several of them spoke at the clinic before cameras. A specific comment struck Dwiveli: One of the imams cited a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that God creates a cure for every disease, emphasizing the point that the vaccine is the cure for COVID-19.
CUHCC set aside resources for the event, making sure enough staff were available to monitor the imams for 15 minutes after they got the shot, per medical guidelines. They also prepared their clinic to serve as a prayer space, knowing that the time for one of the five daily prayers would fall during the event.
CUHCC staff and the event organizers were also selective in which media outlets they invited to spread the message. That included two international outlets—Universal Somali TV and BBC Somali—and the local Somali TV of Minnesota web channel. Getting Somali language media coverage was important, Sharif said.
The point was to reach Somalis all over the world. Since doing the vaccine event, Sharif said he’s had people from as far away as the United Kingdom contact him about it.
“The reception that this event got was very real,” he said. “Even someone in Minnesota can influence someone from Columbus, Ohio or Seattle, Washington, or Canada, or the U.K.”
Old rumors replaced with new rumors
Both Hassan and Sharif say that they’ve heard from members of their mosques who’ve gotten vaccinated in the wake of the event. But tskepticism from some parts of the community lingers nonetheless.
One rumor in circulation, Hassan said, claims that the government paid the imams to showcase the vaccine. This rumor is false: Each imam volunteered his own time to participate in the event.
The imams also used their platform to correct other false rumors in the community: that the vaccines contain pork products, that the vaccines cause infertility in women, that taking the vaccines breaks Ramadan fasts during sunlight, or that the vaccines are a government scheme for population control. None of these rumors are true.
Hassan added that he will receive his second shot of the Moderna vaccine on April 15, after the start of Ramadan, during the middle of the day.
The imams will probably not hold another public vaccination event together. But both Hassan and Sharif will soon help their communities take the next step. They plan to hold vaccination events at their mosques in the days to come.