Sitting in his usual spot, in front of a rainbow-coloured brick wall, Shukeel Chohan gets comfortable. He welcomes his audience for his Late Night Live discussion: what is a vaccine?
The discussion points for tonight’s debate will include: is a supermarket chain cashing in on the coronavirus experimental miracle treatment in Birmingham? When will the lockdown end? Will you take the experimental miracle treatment?
Then there is a bit of housekeeping. “All comments and opinions welcome. Please remain polite and respectful. I might even invite you on screen,” writes Chohan.
The discussion, which took place on Wednesday, lasted for almost three hours, with Chohan – who describes himself as a motivational speaker, business strategy coach and former British army officer – discussing a number of anti-vaccination theories and questioning whether coronavirus exists. Referring to the vaccine as an “experimental miracle treatment”, he tells his followers that he does not wear a mask due to being exempt and needing oxygen.
“I refuse to be part of the experiment. I can’t understand why anyone would want to do that … I don’t trust anything right now, nothing makes any sense to me,” he says.
Chohan’s following on Facebook, the social media platform which he uses the most, is not substantial at just over 1,700, but BAME leaders say he is part of a group of influencers who have been causing concern with their cumulative effect on close-knit communities.
Another is Shah Nur, a social activist and commentator from London. Against a backdrop reading “The real agenda: gambling on the vaccine?” Ustadh Mohammad Quraishi, a presenter on a community TV network, introduces Nur, who allegedly recently exposed the vaccine.
“The question is now: as Muslims, do we trust Pfizer?” Quraishi asks, as the two discuss how “giants in their field” who were sceptical of lockdowns have been ignored by governments who have “spun” the information. In an example that probably hasn’t aged well (this video was posted on 31 December), Nur points to Sweden, which was slow to introduce lockdown, and US government predictions on deaths which “frightened the hell out of people”.
To illustrate “both sides of the argument”, Quraishi then holds up a book entitled “Corona, False Alarm? Facts and Figures” written by two German scientists who claim coronavirus is no different to a seasonal flu. “It’s quite an eye-opener,” Quraishi says. He rejects the label of “Covid-denier” but maintains “there is something out there”.
The Guardian has been sent a number of other videos posted by different individuals, some standing outside vaccination centres, as they discuss unsubstantiated claims that the vaccine might contain pork, is not halal or that it could result in modification of DNA, playing on religious concerns.
As this misinformation began to gain momentum, Imam Qari Asim, chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, alongside a number of other Muslim leaders, said they were forced to start a campaign to encourage BAME communities to get vaccinated. Last week hundreds of mosques used Friday prayers to raise coronavirus awareness and dispel myths around vaccinations.
“Individually, they (anti-vaxxers) are not a big concern. But when you have quite a few of them all making the same unsubstantiated claims and they have a couple of thousand followers each – that’s when they can create an impact and sow the seeds of doubt. We have been urging people to ‘verify before you amplify’ and not believe everything they hear about the vaccines from unqualified sources,” said Asim.
He added: “I think it’s extremely concerning that even during this pandemic, there are people that are exploiting opportunities and also spreading misinformation online and potentially scapegoating communities.
“Thankfully, now the tide is starting to turn. Some imams have even been filmed while being vaccinated to reassure their communities about the permissibility of the vaccines from Islamic perspective, and inspire confidence. Another aspect of our campaign has been to address some of the rumours and conspiracy theories, because misinformation can cost lives.”
The vaccine minister, Nadhim Zahawi, recently warned of the impact of conspiracy theories being shared online, as a study from the Royal Society for Public Health found 57% of BAME people said they would take the vaccine. This compared with 79% of white people
Meanwhile, Dr Arif Dasu in Preston, said other anti-vaxxers were not brave enough to reveal their identities, with their faces often remaining concealed when espousing their theories. Dasu said he became aware of the scale of the issue when he set up a voluntary taskforce for the community to combat the negativity around Covid on social media.
“People were watching videos claiming Covid is a conspiracy, it’s a money-making scheme, how was the vaccine produced so quickly, it was a way for the government to monitor the population and change our DNA. Then there were videos saying the vaccine was not permissible and not halal.”
Dasu and his colleagues on the taskforce hosted a webinar on YouTube to bust myths around Covid and the vaccine. He says the fact they were from the community, rather than an official body, was crucial in bringing the discussion out into the open. “People know us in Preston; being a GP and other health professionals from the community really drove the message home that the vaccine is permissible, halal and safe.
“Opinions are changing in our locality with the majority of Asian and BAME community in our locality now wanting the vaccine and having it now,” he said.