As Nigeria continue to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus, effective communication continues to play the integral role of ensuring people get the right messages about the virus, which will subsequently help in slowing down the community transmission of the disease.
Besides, religion and religious leaders constitute an unequalled persuasive force in Nigeria, which means followers of various religious groups in the country accept, without second thoughts, whatever information they receive from their clerics.
This explains the potency of religious leaders in the campaign against COVID-19 in Kano state. And it was in view of this that the Kano State Task Force on COVID- 19, with the support of LAFIYA – UK Support for Health in Nigeria, initiated series of roundtable discussions with a select group of influential Islamic religious leaders in Kano, where the Task Force sensitized them about COVID-19, correcting persistent misconceptions about the disease and subsequently, enlisted their support in taking the right messages to their followers.
The scores of Islamic clerics women inclusive, represented the Islamic religious diversity of Kano comprising of members of the Tijjaniyya, Qadiriyya, and Izala sects, amongst others.
Accordingly, medical experts took the religious leaders through the origin of the virus, how it spreads and how to effectively communicate messages about COVID-19 to the general public. Other issues discussed were standard precautionary measures necessary for congregational prayers as well guidelines for the conduct of safe and dignified body washing and burial for those suspected or confirmed to have died from COVID-19. On the other hand, facilitators with vast understanding of the Islamic Sharia provided a spiritual perspective to dealing with pandemics such as COVID-19.
One of the medical experts, Dr Musa Bello, a consultant community physician at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital (AKTH), gave the historical background of the coronavirus, detailing its mode of transmission, preventive measures, and classification of COVID- 19 cases. He identified public gatherings and poor personal hygiene as the fastest ways for the virus to spread, underscoring the importance of regular washing of hands, as one of the best strategies for containing and mitigating the spread of the virus.
Dr Bello further emphasized the importance of social distancing as another means to avoid getting infected with the virus. “That the lockdown has been eased and worship centers have been reopened doesn’t mean the virus has gone to sleep. You need to ensure that a social distancing of at least 2 meters is being observed at all mosques and also ensure you always have alcohol-based hand sanitizers at prayer grounds,” he told the clerics.
Dr Yusuf Sabo, lead for the Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) pillar of the Kano COVID-19 taskforce, said the roundtable discussion which focused on the facts, myths and reality of the coronavirus succeeded in imparting the right messages to the religious leaders for onward communication to their followers. “We gave science-based information about the virus in a simplified way such that it will be easy to disseminate the message at the grassroots. We also charged them to use the local language (Hausa) in a clear and simplified manner so that people would understand the message at once,” he said.
Another facilitator, Auwalu Abdu Fagge, secretary of the risk communication sub-committee of the Kano COVID-19 taskforce, said the idea for sensitizing religious leaders (who are the gateway to the people) became necessary having realized that the success of the campaign against COVID-19 in Kano, depended entirely on effective messaging and sensitizing of the people.
“The success of the campaign against COVID-19 depend entirely on the right messaging strategy and sensitizing of the people to understand the disease including how to contract and protect themselves from it. The religious leaders in attendance have taken a pledge to ensure the messages they got from here reach their followers, which will help in sensitizing their followers to protect themselves against the deadly disease,” said Fagge.
Dr Umar Kani, a lecturer at the Aminu Kano College of Islamic and Legal Studies (AKCILS), was one of the facilitators who spoke on Islam’s perspective on COVID-19. He said, as facilitators, they ensured the religious leaders who were of diverse backgrounds understood Islam’s position about all pandemics including COVID-19. “The position of Islam on pandemics is not in any way different from that of medical experts. We want them to go back to their mosques and schools and tell their followers same,” he said.
Correspondingly, Barrister Aisha Tijjani, another lecturer from AKCILS who was a facilitator for the female religious leaders’ session of the roundtable discussions, said at the beginning of the training, most of the women religious leaders didn’t seem to either knew or be concerned about the disease. “Now, even from their body language, one can say they have understood the disease and are eager to go back and transmit the message to their followers,” she said.
Sheikh Hussaini Rano, a commissioner at the Kano State Shariah Commission, was one of the religious leaders who participated in the roundtable discussions. He said since there were still many people who didn’t believe in the existence of the virus in Kano, as Ulamas who were listened to and respected by the people, they will help make such people understand the coronavirus and subsequently take preventive measures against it.
“What we are telling people is that, the history or origin of the virus and the various conspiracy theories about it, are not important. What people should be interested in is how to protect themselves against the disease, since we can see that all Muslim countries of the world have been taking preventive and mitigation measures to protect their citizens from the disease,” urged Sheikh Rano.
Another participant, Dr Matabuli Kabara, a lecturer in the department of Arabic at Bayero University, said most of those who were disputing the existence of COVID-19 were doing so out of ignorance – and not on the basis of any knowledge. He averred that, in the case of COVID-19, medical experts and not religious scholars, were those to be listened to “It is very wrong for someone to speak on something he lacks knowledge of. What the Shariah says is: before you speak on an issue, ask those who know about it so you can speak from the perspective of knowledge.”
Another roundtable participant, Mallam Hafizu Abdullahi, chief imam of Sheikh Ibrahim Inyass mosque in Kano, said contrary to what many people in Kano believed, coronavirus was real and could infect everyone in society – irrespective of their socioeconomic, ethnic or religious status. He added that the notion that the virus was created to stop Muslims from performing their acts of prayers was totally misplaced since the virus had also affected people and businesses in non-Muslim countries.
Nabila Ismail, social norms coordinator for the LAFIYA programme in Kano, said religious leaders remained the most reliable source of information for their followers, consequently, inconsistent and misleading COVID19 information from unreliable sources have influenced unsafe pronouncements and erroneous viewpoints from some religious leaders in Kano, who ended up misleading their followers. “Thus, the essence of this meeting is to expand the scope of participation and empower them with appropriate and accurate information to speak to their audiences in simple and clear language,” she said.
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