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'Round the corner from God': London bus brings COVID-19 vaccines to Ramadan faithful

Published: Updated:

When Anver Patel got an invite to book his second COVID-19 vaccination from a chat group linked to his local mosque, he wondered whether it was wise to go ahead during Ramadan.

He was worried that side-effects from the vaccine would force him to take painkillers - which are not allowed while fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims do not eat, drink or take oral medication between dawn and sunset.

But knowing he could get the jab at a mobile clinic on a converted bus outside his east London mosque and Muslim community centre gave Patel the courage to go ahead.

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"It helped having it at the mosque because I knew people there ... Having friendly faces and a bit of banter," the 60-year-old chartered accountant said in a telephone interview a week after his second injection.

"Some of them were saying, 'Look at the worst-case scenario - if something happens to you - then you're just round the corner from God's place of worship'."

Patel is among hundreds of people vaccinated on the double-decker bus visiting mosques in the borough of Redbridge since it opened last week to help vaccination teams reach vulnerable communities, overcome vaccine hesitancy and bust vaccine myths.

After suffering more than 125,000 COVID-19 deaths - the fifth highest globally - Britain is racing forward with a vaccination programme that aims to offer everyone in the country a jab by the end of July.

Ethnic minorities have been disproportionately struck by the virus, due to a range of possible factors, including poverty, working in risky sectors like healthcare, and living in cities or multigenerational households.

MISTRUST

Official data last year found the mortality rate among Muslims was higher than any other religious group, with those who were Jewish, Hindu or Sikh also showing higher death rates.

But minorities are less likely to get vaccinated due to misinformation spread through social media and greater mistrust of the government.

The British Islamic Medical Association has sought to reassure Muslims that the vaccine does not break the fast as it is not nutritional. But the message has not reached everyone.

Shabnam Ali, a doctor helping to run the clinics outside mosques, said it was "quite common" for Muslims to have concerns about getting the vaccine while fasting.

"There's still a fair few who say, 'I'm so glad I can come after (sunset), that means I didn't have to break my fast'," she said.

"What we didn't want was people who are coming to the end of their 12 weeks (when the second vaccine dose is due under British rules) to miss out."

COMFORTABLE

Many patients had heard about the clinic - which is open to all but largely aimed at Muslim faithful who do not want to get vaccinated during fasting hours - through the local mosque.

One woman said it was the only time she could come after a busy day at work followed by cooking and the shared iftar meal, while others said it was a convenient location.

The clinic can deliver more than 100 vaccines in a shift, said Najib Seedat, the clinical lead of the outreach team.

This is a fraction of the 2,000 or so given out at sessions in a nearby town hall with a similar number of staff, he said, as additional staff stood on the street to give people passing by the chance to ask questions about the vaccine.

"You have got to do things which are extreme to try and get them in," he said, adding that working alongside mosques gives the project additional credibility.

"It is a nice shiny bus that everyone pays attention to, and we use that as a strategy to open up dialogue and discussion."

Organisers are also working with churches, temples and synagogues in the area to encourage their followers to get vaccinated.

Bashir Patel, chairman of the Federation of Redbridge Muslim Organisations, said having mosques host the clinics reassured those wavering about getting the jab as they felt protection from being near a "house of God".

"People of faith have a very deep faith and belief in God and where they are nervous about taking something, this is a place where they feel comfortable," he said.

"I've known people who have been able, through their age, to book quite a long time ago, and they didn't. But as soon as we opened this clinic here they booked themselves in."

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