For the COVID-19 vaccine to be effective, somewhere in the range of 75 to 85 percent of a country’s population will need to be vaccinated, a level of vaccination that would attain targeted herd immunity from the deadly virus. This is a lofty target given the proliferation of online anti-vaccination conspiracies, particularly in the Muslim world.

Pakistan offers a warning sign, as anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have rooted and taken hold across social media, before being further fuelled and exacerbated by prominent personalities in the mainstream media and among the political class. Renowned Pakistani columnist Zaid Hamid went so far as to warn that Microsoft Founder Bill Gates will embed nanochips in Pakistanis through administration of the vaccine, allowing the US military to track their every movement through 5G towers.

Hamid also claimed it would “take Islam away from all the Muslims” and “allow Jews to rule the world,” thus blending a conspiracy about the vaccine with antisemitic slights against the Jewish people. At the same time, the country’s former Foreign Minister falsely alleged the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel concocted the virus in a laboratory to hurt China.

Conspiracies about COVID and the vaccine have meshed seamlessly with similar conspiracies that have undone Pakistan’s polio eradication program.

These conspiracies about COVID and the vaccine have meshed seamlessly with similar conspiracies that have undone Pakistan’s polio eradication program, with new cases of the preventable disease remerging for the first time in decades. Pakistani health experts blame revelations regarding a fake vaccination campaign orchestrated by the CIA in 2011 to track down al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden for growing suspicion and misapprehension towards vaccines.

In 2003, a significant share of Nigeria’s Muslim population participated in a boycott campaign against the polio vaccine, falsely believing the vaccine to be a ruse to infect Muslims with HIV and cancerous agents.

These types of conspiracies against the COVID vaccine have spread like wildfire among Muslim populations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The reason has less to do with intricacies or peculiarities related to the Islamic faith and more with the way the Western-led “War on Terror” has caused large swathes of the Muslim world to become suspicious of Western governments.

In a 2004 interview, Ali Guda Takai, a World Health Organization representative, told The Baltimore Sun that the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which was premised on false claims about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program, launched a myriad of conspiracy theories about everything American and European—especially Western developed and distributed vaccines.

“If America is fighting people in the Middle East, the conclusion is that they are fighting Muslims.”

“If America is fighting people in the Middle East, the conclusion is that they are fighting Muslims,” said Takai, who blamed anti-vaccine conspiracies for spreading polio to areas within Nigeria that had been polio-free for years.

Last year, a Pakistani man from a village along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, an area that has endured years of aerial bombardment from US-led coalition forces, told al-Arabiya that he barred Pakistani government officials from administering vaccines to his children, saying he didn’t trust the “quality of the vaccine” because “on the one hand, they [Western governments] are killing our children and on the other hand, they pose to save our children.”

COVID vaccine Muslim world

A teacher checks body temperatures of students as they arrive at a school in Lahore, Pakistan, Nov. 25, 2020. Public health officials face widespread lack of trust in vaccines, as they seek to vaccinate millions against COVID-19. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)

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In the Middle East, Arabic language YouTube channel “Reality Today” has attracted nearly 200,000 subscribers by peddling conspiracies and misinformation about the COVID vaccine. The channel describes it as a Bill Gates-led hoax to implant microchips, which it describes as the “mark of the beast,” into Muslims throughout the region. There are many more channels like this gaining significant followings by pushing similar fallacies.

COVID vaccine hesitancy is also exacerbated by typically high levels of mistrust towards government in a number of Muslim majority countries, where government officials are widely viewed as either corrupt, incompetent, or both. Making matters worse, the governments of Muslim majority countries have also used COVID conspiracies for political expediency, with the Saudi government falsely blaming Shi’ite Muslims for deliberately spreading the virus, and Egyptian authorities initially calling the novel Coronavirus a “hoax.”

Worryingly, a recent YouGov/WIRED poll revealed a general reluctance among those surveyed in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, with 30 percent of respondents believing the COVID vaccine to be designed to control or monitor populations.

For Muslim citizens of Western countries, distrust towards their respective governments is an inevitable by-product of having been vilified and scapegoated by politicians and the media in the post-9/11 era.

“This has a detrimental effect on the levels of trust that exist between Muslims, state and federal governments, and the media,” observes Zuleyha Keskin for Australian news agency ABC. “Is it any wonder, then, that many Muslims embrace conspiracy theories in which the state is seizing extra powers over the lives of its citizens, such as lockdowns, compulsory wearing of face masks, and social distancing restrictions?”

The challenge for the governments of Muslim majority countries will be in delivering timely and accurate information about the COVID vaccine.

The challenge for the governments of Muslim majority countries will be in delivering timely and accurate information about the COVID vaccine, while also employing trusted public figures to debunk widely disseminated conspiracy theories. Studies have shown that public confidence towards vaccinations is “directly related to public awareness of infectious diseases,” with a 2019 survey of 140,000 participants around the world finding that “countries with active public-awareness campaigns against infectious diseases achieved very high rates of agreement on vaccine safety, effectiveness and importance.”

The more transparent and forthright public health authorities are about vaccines, how they work, and what they contain – while also giving a clear and unambiguous statement on their effectiveness and safety – it will help instill greater levels of confidence and trust among vaccine suspicious and hesitant communities.

These governments would also do well to remind their respective Muslim populations that the husband and wife team – Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci – behind the successful development of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine are of Turkish Muslim heritage.