With tubes in his nose, the man can barely reach a whisper as he speaks in a 49-second music video.
- Influential religious leader hesitated to actively promote vaccines
- Doctors say natural remedies cannot be used to prevent or treat COVID-19
- Vaccination rates have increased, but misinformation and COVID-19 plots continue to spread
His beard and hair are graying, he has dark circles around his eyes, and the skin on his face is peeling.
“I had a really difficult month,” he breathes.
âI never believed COVID existedâ¦ Believe me it’s realâ¦ Do the right thing by your family, by the communityâ¦ I was in a coma for ten days. Please, please, please don’t be naive like me. “
The video was uploaded to Facebook by MyCentre Mosque in Broadmeadows, north Melbourne, last week and viewed 11,000 times.
The man in the video did not mention the vaccines, but the post sparked a wave of comments, highlighting the ongoing struggle between community members who support the jab and a vocal minority who are determined to sow doubt on vaccinations.
âThe vaccine is the best thing I can do for my family,â one person wrote. “Get those damn vaxes,” said another.
Others offered prayers to the sick man, but used the platform to double anti-vaccination sentiment. “They create the problem then try [selling] the pill to the masses. Don’t be fooled by their deception, âwrote one woman, who has previously shared COVID-19 conspiracy videos.
The suburbs around the mosque have been the hardest hit by the Melbourne Delta outbreak, and there are still around 2,500 residents in the town of Hume battling the virus.
The spiritual leader of MyCentre Mosque is Imam Samir Mohtadi, also known as Abu Hamza.
In recent months, while other Melbourne-based imams and the Grand Mufti of Australia have publicly urged Muslims to get the shot, Abu Hamza has not publicly encouraged the community to get the shot.
Instead, in social media videos to the mosque’s over 40,000 online subscribers, Abu Hamza promoted how he “stays healthy”, using honey, ginger, olive oil and turmeric to strengthen the immune system.
In a video posted on October 6, titled “Is it illegal to get vaccinated?” “Abu Hamza admitted to having” upset a lot of people “.
“But I’mâ¦ looking for natural doctors. I’m not taking Panadol, Panadeine, Aspirin, Pana-whatever.
“Is it forbidden, is it illegal, is it Haram to seek drugs and doctors? No, don’t get me wrong.”
“I respect people who get vaccinated and I respect people who don’t get vaccinated.”
At a time when Muslims are overrepresented in Melbourne hospitals, Abu Hamza’s reluctance to actively promote the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines is at odds with the leaders of the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV), who are fiercely pro vaccination.
Abu Hamza declined to be interviewed, but when contacted by ABC he said: âI am extremely careful with what I say.
Publicly, the imam has regularly called on the mosque community to get tested if symptoms of COVID appear, and to pray for those suffering from the virus.
Last month, he told people to take “extreme precautions” as the virus spread through the community, but didn’t tell people to get the vaccine.
In April, Abu Hamza hosted a question-and-answer session at the mosque with a doctor who debunked common misconceptions about vaccines. Members of his own family fell ill with COVID last year, and he urged people not to break the law by participating in lockdown protests.
âAlmost all patientsâ unvaccinated in intensive care
Earlier this month, prominent Lebanese-Australian physician Abdul-Latif Halimi said that “conspiracy theories”, “unverified treatments” and people paying too much attention to “unqualified figures in our community “were linked to the increase in cases.
Austin Health surgeon Dr Ahmad Aly said it was distressing to see so many fellow Muslims in intensive care suffering from the virus.
He said there was no evidence that natural remedies worked to prevent or treat COVID-19.
“It is clear that in intensive care virtually all patients are not vaccinated,” said Dr Aly.
âYou see patients just before they are ventilated, pleading, ‘Can I have the vaccine now? “It’s heartbreaking to explain that you really can’t.”
Seven weeks ago, Hume’s overall vaccination rates were the lowest of any area in Victorian local government.
Leaders of the Muslim community were among those who engaged in intense public campaigns calling for people to get the jab.
Thanks to improved access to vaccines, the city’s first dose rate increased from 40% to 90%, pushing Hume most of Melbourne’s local government areas.
Dr Aly called on community leaders to continue to directly encourage vaccinations.
Misinformation fueled hesitation over vaccine
Despite widespread adoption of the vaccine, a small minority continues to resist, inspired by the numbers on social media.
Ella Zain believes misinformation on social media and websites contributed to her father’s decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccine while he was eligible.
It was a choice that could cost Zain Tiba his life – he contracted the virus in early September and has been in a coma in an intensive care unit for weeks.
Thanks to the nurses at the hospital who have set up video calls, Ella and her family can see Mr. Tiba, and they hope he can somehow feel their love and support.
âThe worst part is the wait – it doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get worse,â Ella said.
It was on the social media platform TikTok that Jemal Abazi, a business owner from South East Melbourne, amassed 15,000 followers, along with another 3,000 on Instagram. He has published allegations that doctors are “drug dealers” for drug companies and criticized religious leaders who have encouraged COVID vaccines.
âDon’t sell your soul to the devil,â he said in a video.
âShame on all those who hide the real factsâ¦ Shame on you vaccinated people who have turned bad,â Mr Abazi said in another.
When contacted by the ABC, Mr Abazi said he felt people were being pressured into taking the jab and that he opposed Victoria’s vaccine mandate for licensed workers.
âYour body – it’s your choice, do your research and make your own decision,â he said.
Meanwhile, Ahmet Oruc, a supporter of Abu Hamza and the Craigieburn-based podcaster with thousands of social media followers, claimed the COVID-19 vaccines were “tested on us.”
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has provisionally approved the vaccines in Australia and insisted that no part of the authorizations had been rushed.
The ABC is aware of community leaders and doctors who have urged Mr. Oruc to stop posting the material. In a video, Mr. Oruc, a builder, confirmed that several people contacted him and accused him of spreading lies and disinformation.
Mr. Oruc did not respond to a request for comment.
“Information vacuum” persists despite vaccination
Misinformation about vaccines is not a problem limited to Muslim or culturally diverse communities. On the Telegram messaging app, unverified vaccine theories and claims that the pandemic is part of a global conspiracy continue to spread.
In a Telegram group of 54,000 members, anonymous “whistleblowers” wrote about the side effects of vaccines they claim to have seen in the Australian healthcare system.
Dr Josh Roose, whose research focuses on the rise of conspiracy theories and fringe groups, said a small number of anti-vaccines continued to exert influence among the 15% of Australians who did not had not yet received at least one dose of vaccine.
While most of them had been vaccinated and health information leaked to the mainstream media, Dr Roose said some people remained in an “information vacuum” filled with anti-science plots.
Dr Roose said he was concerned about Telegram, which has been used by anti-vaccines to broadcast messages to large groups, and TikTok, which Dr Roose said had “no content monitoring” .
âAmong the younger generation, TikTok is a concern. You have short, high-pitched inflammatory messages about governments. It’s about tyranny and freedom and people taking over your body,â he said. .
For Ella Zain, the message to the community is simple: seek the advice of a general practitioner if you have questions about COVID-19 or vaccines, and ignore people without medical expertise.
âIt’s so annoying to see people talking about these things when they’re not even allowed to,â Ella said.
âIt’s so scary, because there are so many people, especially our eldersâ¦ who rely heavily on social media to get all their information and news. And this misinformation from all these different platforms, it’s actually dangerous because that they don’t know what is credible and what is not, and what they can rely on and what they cannot.
“Everything is the same for them.”