When COVID-19 struck two years ago, open-air worshipers from apostolic religious sects in Zimbabwe were not spared its deadly toll, as they defied restrictions, meeting for mass worship despite a ban.
With seemingly no lessons learned from the pandemic, this year in the village of Mafararikwa in Bocha, in the Manicaland Province, apostolic worshipers gathered for an annual festival, resulting in children later falling prey to a measles outbreak.
Known as the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect, each July the group is seen with members donning all-white worship garments, along with their children, including infants.
Now, hundreds of children, most from apostolic sects, contracted measles, almost certainly due to the mass gatherings.
Measles is decimating hundreds of children from apostolic churches where immunization has been deemed a sin.
As the season for mass deaths pounded worshipers, particularly from apostolic sects, many women in the sects insist that nothing is amiss about not immunizing their children, some of whom have died.
“Children have died, yes, but that has nothing to do with measles. It’s the evil spirits that have attacked our children,” Nelisiwa Mlambo, a mother of eight and worshiper at an apostolic church in Bocha, told Anadolu Agency.
Mlambo claimed when worshippers camped at their shrine, she lost her 5-year-old daughter to “spiritual attacks,” although she said many claimed her child was a victim of measles.
Mlambo – the sixth of eight wives of her polygamous husband – first saw her daughter suffering from fever, followed by a runny nose, cough, red and watery eyes and small white spots inside of her cheeks.
Even as some told her that they were earlier symptoms of measles, Mlambo was unconvinced, insisting witchcraft was at play.
The symptoms got worse, growing from spreading rash, severe diarrhea, and dehydration. Eventually, her daughter died.
- ‘Politicized’ deaths
But measles deaths have been politicized, as activists claim the governing Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-Pf) needs apostolic sects for support during elections.
“One can’t expect the Zanu-PF-led government to rein in the same people whom it has manipulated to vote for it each election time. All the apostolic sects vote for Zanu-PF, and they will keep refusing to immunize their children against measles because they know authorities can’t do anything against them,” Elvis Mugari, an opposition activist of the Citizens Coalition for Change, told Anadolu Agency.
Despite activists like Mugari demanding authorities rein in unimmunized apostolic worshipers that gather every year at places like Mafararikwa, nothing has happened.
Amid the marauding cases of measles last month, at least 157 children were killed, according to the Health Ministry, while more than 2,000 people contracted the disease.
This is happening in apostolic churches such as Johanne Masowe, which commands an estimated 20,000 congregants who gather at a shrine annually.
But leaders of apostolic sects denied reports that unimmunized children in their churches are dying of measles.
“People see only the deaths of children in our apostolic churches. Children are dying even outside our churches, but well that doesn’t mean we will be shaken from our belief system that we don’t accede to immunization come rain or sunshine,” Dakarai Mafuwa, who leads a breakaway faction of an apostolic church known as Johanne Masowe Wenguwo Tsvuku, told Anadolu Agency.
- Children said to be in line for vaccination
Under pressure from critics, even as it relies on apostolic sects for votes, the government earlier this month blamed an outbreak of measles on huge gatherings of apostolic worshipers nationwide.
"The Ministry of Health and Childcare wishes to inform the public that the ongoing outbreak of measles which was first reported on the 10th of April has since spread nationwide following church gatherings," Health Secretary Jasper Chimedza said on Aug. 14.
Chimedza also said 1,036 suspected cases and 125 confirmed cases have been reported since the outbreak, with Manicaland in eastern Zimbabwe accounting for most of the infections.
Despite resistance from apostolic churches, the government has claimed it is determined to vaccinate all children age 6 to 15 with the help of UN agencies such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization, according to July Moyo, the minister of local government.
Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa has told the media hat the “government has invoked the Civil Protection Unit Act to deal with the emergency, and the Ministry of Health and Child Care is on the ground carrying out an intensive vaccination program."
The outbreak poses another blow to the healthcare sector, which is already suffering from a deficit of drugs amid constant strikes by doctors and nurses demanding better wages.