‘Marites’ blamed for vaccine hesitancy vs COVID-19 

DATU HOFFER AMPATUAN, Maguindanao del Sur (MindaNews / 29 January) – “Dahil kay Marites” (because of Marites).

‘Marites’ has been blamed for the vaccine hesitancy that prevailed in Maguindanao at the onset of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in 2021.

From the phrase “Mare, ito ang latest,” ‘Marites’ has become synonymous to tsismosa or gossipmongers, in particular referring to people who love to make and spread rumors, either on social media or in the neighborhood. 

Rahiema Hanifa Karim, COVID-19 focal person of Datu Hoffer Ampatuan municipality, slammed ‘Marites’ for vaccine hesitancy among residents, making it difficult for rural health workers to convince them to go for vaccination.

A health worker briefs parents of students from the Datu Hoffer Ampatuan Central Elementary School about the COVID-19 vaccination on December 7, 2022. Photo courtesy of Datu Hoffer RHU Facebook page

As a frontliner in their community, Karim, during the rollout of the COVID-19 mass vaccination in 2021, found it hard to encourage a number of their constituents to get vaccinated because of the havoc wreaked by the Mariteses in the town and the fake news and disinformation that spread like wildfire on social media.

Many rejected the COVID-19 vaccines because fake news got to their household or communities first, beating the information awareness campaign launched by local health workers about the disease.

“Dahil din kay Marites” Karim stressed.

Many residents in the predominantly Muslim province shunned vaccination due to disinformation that the COVID-19 vaccines are not halal (permissible) and laced with pork products, which are haram or forbidden in Islam.

“Scientifically, there’s no truth to those claims. They have been proven to be false,” Karim stressed.

To address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, several towns in this province sought the  help of Muslim religious leaders (MRL) to encourage people to get vaccinated.

Tapping MRLs like imam and ustadz was an effective way to address false information and rumors, Karim said, adding MRLs “are respected in their communities. Residents listen and follow what they have to say.”

To prove that the available COVID-19 vaccines are halal, Karim said that during community orientation or house-to-house visits, local health workers would play a video showing Bangsamoro Grand Mufti Abulhuraira Udasan endorsing the government’s vaccination drive.

Udasan heads the Islamic advisory council or the Darul-Ifta in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“The vaccine for healing and preventive measure, in general, is lawful (halal),” the Mufti had said.

Norolhak Daud, an ustadz from Barangay Barurao in Sultan sa Barongis town, also spread the guidance of the Darul-Ifta to the communities that he served to help contain COVID-19.

Daud, who is among the MRLs tapped to fight COVID-19 in Maguindanao, also cites the preaching of the Holy Quran to encourage residents to get protection from the deadly disease.

“Kung meron tayo kalaban katulad ng virus, kung di pa dumating ang kalaban, dapat maghanda,” said Daud, a madrasah teacher.

Daud acknowledged that he was initially hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of fake news he read on social media and the rumors spread by the ‘Marites’ in their neighborhood. 

But he joined a COVID-19 orientation for MRLs and learning from health workers that many people had been vaccinated, Daud followed suit.

“The COVID-19 vaccine does not kill. I am still alive after getting it. You must also get the vaccine to protect you,” he encouraged his fellow Maguindanaons.

Daud admitted there are others who do not heed his advice and to avoid trouble, he would leave them alone.

Karim praised the work of the MRLs, even if others still do not heed their appeal to get the vaccine.

“There’s a marked increase in the number of people in our municipality who trooped to our COVID-19 vaccination sites after we engaged the local religious leaders in our campaign,” she said.

Karim attributed the over 50 percent COVID-19 vaccination achievement rate of the town partly due to the involvement of the MRLs to fight the deadly disease. 

If the MRLs have not been engaged, the figure would have been much lower, she added.

Of the 19,663 target population for COVID-19 vaccination in Datu Hoffer,  10,626 individuals were fully vaccinated, a 54 percent coverage achievement, while 2,185 were partially vaccinated as of January 9, data from the Integrated Provincial Health Office showed. 

Datu Hoffer RHU workers vowed to continue encouraging the 6,852 unvaccinated constituents, or around 35 percent of their target, to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)