Fearing a surge in cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) over Christmas travel season and wary of the emergence of new variants, Nigeria is turning to religious leaders, churches and mosques to push a mass vaccination campaign.

Those worries will likely deepen after Nigeria on Wednesday reported its first cases of the Omicron variant that has prompted new travel bans.

Africa’s most populous nation has so far mostly escaped the brunt of the global pandemic that ravaged Europe and elsewhere after coronavirus emerged in December 2019.

People walk away after taking jabs of Vaxzevria Astrazeneca vaccine against coronavirus (COVID-19) at the Secretariat Community Central Mosque, Alausa, Ikeja in Lagos, on November 26, 2021.

Recorded cases are low — around 214,000 registered infections and just under 3,000 deaths since the pandemic began — although that is likely partly due to low testing rates.

But the country of some 210 million people has fully vaccinated only 3.5 million people and given 6.5 million one shot — far off a target of inoculating around 112 million, or 70 percent of the adult population, by the end of next year.

For a religious society like Nigeria, churches and mosques have in the past proven effective in mobilising sceptical communities to get vaccinated as they were with a polio campaign a decade ago.

“The mosques and churches get the largest crowds. It is also a way to reduce the risk and access more people. A lot of people don’t want to queue up, so we bring it to their doorstep,” said Dr. Atinuke Onayiga, a senior Lagos health official visiting the Ikoyi church.

Across the other side of Lagos, in the mainland district of Alausa, Friday prayers at the Lagos State Secretariat mosque followed a similar pattern. “Now it’s happening here, I should do it. I wasn’t interested before, but here I can trust it,” said Lawal Abujeli, 35, sitting in a white plastic chair outside the mosque waiting to be vaccinated.

Dr Ismail Abdus-Salam, Lagos state Covid response incident manager, said religious houses were an effective way to spread the word back to communities.

“We also improve awareness,” he said outside the Alausa mosque. “They spread the message to people: ‘I’ve been vaccinated and there is no problem with me, and you can get vaccinated.”

In another effort to promote mass vaccinations, federal government employees are now required to show evidence of vaccination or a Covid test before entering offices.

Outside some federal buildings in the capital Abuja, dozens of workers were turned away on Wednesday as new rules were enforced. Some were directed to vaccine centres.

Health authorities plan office-to-office vaccinations in federal buildings.

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