With tubes up his nose, the man can barely reach a whisper as he speaks in a 49-second video clip.
- An influential religious leader has been reluctant to actively promote vaccines
- Doctors say natural remedies cannot be used to prevent or treat COVID-19
- Vaccine rates have risen, but COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracies continue to spread
His beard and hair are greying, he has dark circles around his eyes and the skin on his face is peeling.
“I’ve had a really rough month,” he gasps.
“I never believed COVID existed … Believe me, it’s real … Do the right thing by your family, by the community … I was in a coma for ten days. Please, please, please, don’t be naive like me.”
The video was uploaded to Facebook by the MyCentre mosque in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s north, last week and viewed 11,000 times.
The man in the video did not mention vaccines, but the post triggered a flurry of comments, highlighting the ongoing struggle between community members who support the jab and a vocal minority who are determined to instil doubt about vaccinations.
“The vaccine is what I can do best for my family,” one person wrote. “Get the bloody vax people,” said another.
Others offered prayers to the sick man, but used the platform to double down on anti-vaccination sentiment. “They create the problem then try [selling] the pill to the masses. Don’t be fooled into their trickery,” wrote one woman, who has previously shared COVID-19 conspiracy videos.
The suburbs around the mosque have been worst affected by Melbourne’s Delta outbreak, and there are still about 2,500 residents in the City of Hume battling the virus.
Imam Abu Hamza has urged community members to take COVID-19 seriously, but stopped short of encouraging or promoting vaccinations.(ABC News: Ron Ekkel (file photo))
The spiritual leader of the MyCentre mosque is imam Samir Mohtadi, also known as Abu Hamza.
In recent months, as other Melbourne-based imams and Australia’s Grand Mufti have publicly urged Muslims to take the jab, Abu Hamza has not publicly encouraged the community to get vaccinated.
A screenshot of an October 15 video, where Abu Hamza talks about the herb collection that helps him “stay healthy”.(Facebook: IISNA MyCentre)
Instead, in social media videos to more than 40,000 of the mosque’s online followers, Abu Hamza has promoted how he “stays healthy”, by using the likes of honey, ginger, olive oil and turmeric to boost the immune system.
In a video posted on October 6, titled ‘Is it unlawful to take the vaccine?’, Abu Hamza acknowledged that he had “upset a lot of people”.
“I have been anti-medication all my life. I’m anti-pharmaceutical doctors,” he said.
“But I do … seek the natural doctors. I don’t take Panadol, Panadeine, Aspirin, Pana-anything.
“Is it forbidden, is it unlawful, is it Haram to seek medicine and doctors? No, don’t get me wrong.”
“I respect the people that take the vaccine and I respect the people that don’t take the vaccine.”
At a time when Muslims are over-represented in Melbourne’s 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 have been staunchly pro-vaccination.
Abu Hamza declined to be interviewed, but when contacted by the ABC, he said: “I’m extremely cautious with what I say.”
Publicly, the imam has regularly called for the mosque community to get tested if COVID symptoms emerge, and to pray for those suffering from the virus.
Last month, he told people to take to take “extreme precautions” as the virus spread through the community, but stopped short of telling them to get vaccinated.
In April, Abu Hamza hosted a Q&A session at the mosque with a doctor who debunked common misconceptions about vaccines. His own family members fell sick with COVID last year, and he urged people not to break the law by participating in lockdown protests.
‘Virtually all patients’ unvaccinated in intensive care
Dr Ahmad Aly appears in a social media video, calling on Muslim community leaders to encourage vaccinations. (Facebook: Islamic Council of Victoria)
Earlier this month, prominent Lebanese-Australian doctor Abdul-Latif Halimi said “conspiracy theories”, “unverified treatments” and people giving too much attention to “unqualified figures in our community” were linked to the rise in cases.
Austin Health surgeon Dr Ahmad Aly said it had been distressing to see so many fellow Muslims in intensive care suffering from the virus.
He said there was no evidence natural remedies worked to prevent or treat COVID-19.
“It’s clear that in intensive care, virtually all patients are unvaccinated,” Dr Aly said.
“You see patients just before they’re being 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 across all Victorian local government areas.
Muslim community leaders were among those who engaged in intense public campaigns calling for people to get the jab.
With improved vaccine access, the city’s first-dose rate jumped from 40 per cent to 90 per cent, sending Hume past most Melbourne local government areas.
Dr Aly called on community leaders to keep directly encouraging vaccinations.
“Stand up, explain that this is necessary. This is the thing that will protect us. You have the opportunity to save lives, you have the opportunity to make a real difference,” he said.
Misinformation has fuelled vaccine hesitancy
Despite the widespread uptake of the vaccine, a small minority continue their resistance, inspired by figures on social media.
Ella Zain believes misinformation on social media and websites contributed to her father’s decision to hold off getting a COVID-19 vaccine when he was eligible.
It was a choice that may cost Zain Tiba his life — he contracted the virus in early September and has been in a coma in an intensive care ward for weeks.
Zain Tiba and his daughter Ella Zain both caught COVID-19, and he remains in a coma after several weeks.(Supplied)
Thanks to nurses in the hospital who set up video calls, Ella and her family are able to see Mr Tiba, and they hope he can in some way feel their love and support.
“The worst part is the wait — he’s not getting better and he’s not getting worse,” Ella said.
Melbourne men Ahmet Oruc and Jemal Abazi have posted videos against COVID-19 vaccines to thousands of followers on social media.
It is on social media platform TikTok that Jemal Abazi, a business owner from Melbourne’s south-east, has amassed 15,000 followers, along with another 3,000 on Instagram. He has posted claims doctors are “drug dealers” for pharmaceutical companies, and criticised religious leaders who have encouraged COVID vaccines.
“Do not sell your soul to the devil,” he said in one video.
“Shame on everyone hiding the true facts … Shame on you vaccinated ones who have become evil,” Mr Abazi said in another.
When contacted by the ABC, Mr Abazi said he felt people were being coerced into taking the jab, and that he opposed Victoria’s vaccine mandate for authorised workers.
“Your body — it’s your choice, do the research and make your own decision,” he said.
Meanwhile Ahmet Oruc, a supporter of Abu Hamza and Craigieburn-based podcaster with thousands of social media followers, has claimed COVID-19 vaccines are being “trialled on us”.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has provisionally approved the vaccines in Australia, and has insisted no part of the authorisations have been rushed.
The ABC is aware of community leaders and doctors who have urged Mr Oruc to stop posting the material. In one video, Mr Oruc, a builder, confirmed several people had contacted him and accused him of spreading lies and misinformation.
Mr Oruc did not respond to a request for comment.
‘Information vacuum’ remains despite vaccine take-up
Vaccine misinformation is not an issue limited to the Muslim or culturally diverse communities. On messaging app Telegram, unverified theories about vaccines and claims the pandemic is part of a global conspiracy continue to spread.
In one Telegram group with 54,000 members, so-called anonymous “whistleblowers” have been writing about vaccine side effects they claim to have seen in Australia’s healthcare system.
Dr Josh Roose, whose research centres around the rise of conspiracy theories and fringe groups, said a small number of anti-vaxxers continued to carry influence among the 15 per cent of Australians who had not yet received at least one vaccine dose.
While most around them had been vaccinated and health information was plastered across mainstream media, Dr Roose said some people remained in an “information vacuum” filled with anti-science conspiracies.
Dr Roose said he was concerned about Telegram, which has been used by anti-vaxxers to spread messages to large groups, and TikTok, which Dr Roose said had “zero content monitoring”.
“Among the younger generation, TikTok is a concern. You have short, sharp bursts of inflammatory messaging about governments. That this is about tyranny and freedom and people taking over your body,” he said.
For Ella Zain, the message to the community is simple: Get advice from a GP if you have questions about COVID-19 or vaccines, and ignore people without medical expertise.
“It’s so annoying to see people talk about these things when they’re not even authorised to,” Ella said.
“They don’t have the qualifications, they don’t have the research to back up what they’re saying.
“It’s so scary, because there are so many people, especially our elders … that 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 they don’t know what is credible and what isn’t credible, and what they can rely on and what they can’t.
“Everything is just the same to them.”