It fell on a Friday the 13th. For Muslim congregants in Peel last March, it was supposed to be just another jummah, or Friday prayer service. Two days earlier, with over 118,000 positive cases across the globe, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
The announcement coincided with Peel opening its first COVID-19 assessment centre after exposures were identified in Mississauga and Brampton.
But on that Friday, instead of welcoming congregants to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in prayer, Mosques across the country were advised by community leaders to suspend in-person services and move online. These local recommendations came prior to the provincial restrictions on public gatherings. They were made after an emergency meeting organized with the help of Rabia Khedr, CEO of DEEN Support Services, a Mississauga-based charity for those living with disabilities.
Khedr had heard, through a contact, that the Muslim Medical Association of Canada was planning to issue a statement with direction for religious leaders to help curb infections as the virus was spreading rapidly in congregate settings including places of worship.
The jummah prayer on Friday afternoons, considered an obligation for observant Muslims, attracts tens of thousands to Mosques across the country, which are often filled for the religiously significant weekly gathering.
Knowing how central cultural and spiritual life is to many in Peel’s tight-knit Muslim communities, Khedr saw an opportunity to bring the Canadian Council of Imams to the table and take a grassroots, proactive approach to keep members safe.
“I’m a big believer in collaboration, so I took it upon myself…to connect people together,” she said. “It was just a few community members having a conversation, basically saying we need to give some guidance and direction to our community. We need to protect people.”
The two organizations and other representatives held an emergency meeting on March 12, and issued recommendations the following day. It marked the beginnings of the Canadian Muslim COVID-19 Task Force (CMCTF), which Khedr co-chairs. The organization has since offered support to a similar initiative – the South Asian COVID Task Force, launched in December – and fills a critical community education role during the pandemic, including its latest virtual town hall event addressing questions about COVID-19 vaccines.
According to a December article published in The Lancet medical journal, “participatory community engagement” is important for widespread vaccine uptake, especially among marginalized groups whose trust in government agencies may be further eroded based on how the pandemic response has affected them.
Co-authored by a dozen researchers from seven countries, the article states, “In this new phase of the COVID-19 response, successful vaccine roll-out will only be achieved by ensuring effective community engagement, building local vaccine acceptability and confidence, and overcoming cultural, socioeconomic, and political barriers.”
The researchers also included a framework to coordinate local, community-based COVID-19 vaccine task force initiatives to complement the national rollout.
The CMCTF’s work comes amid high case counts in Peel since Christmas including 713 new infections January 2, the highest daily figure since the beginning of the pandemic. According to the Region’s latest epidemiologic report, published on January 4, for the week of December 20 Peel registered 175.8 cases per 100,000 residents. To move from the current grey (lockdown) category down to the orange (restrict) category a region has to have a weekly incidence rate less than 40 cases per 100,000 residents (anything above this puts a region into the red, control category or into lockdown). Currently, the entire province is still in lockdown.
The Region’s test positivity rate remains in the double digits, at 10.2 percent. A threshold of less than 2.5 percent has been used by public health officials to signal spread of the virus is under control.
With the help of its volunteer network, including physicians and religious leaders, the CMCTF sprung into action, issuing documents and infographics in several languages for diverse Muslim communities to connect them to medical information and province-specific frameworks, alongside religious guidance, Khedr said.
The group held a COVID-19 town hall on January 3 to address frequently asked questions about the new vaccines, including whether it is safe and contains ingredients that are considered halal, or permissible, in Islam.
Panelist Yusuf Badat, an Imam in the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, underscored that getting vaccinated ahead of travel is typical for Muslims observing the Hajj or umrah pilgrimages to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Badat, joined by Hamid Slimi, a religious scholar and founder of Sayeda Khadija Centre in Mississauga, referred to the Hadith when recommending that community members “strike the balance” in supplementing their faith with actions to protect themselves, and others, based on medical guidance. (The Hadith is a record of collected and documented prophetic traditions that provides context on the Quran’s revelations and informs Islamic law.)
They were joined by Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an internal medicine and infectious diseases specialist at the University Health Network and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. Sharkawy has received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, answered community questions about its safety, development timeline and potential booster shots.
“How long [antibodies last] remains to be seen, and whether we need booster doses in a year or sometime beyond that, we simply don’t have the answer to. But that’s an extremely critical point because it behooves us to be extremely vigilant,” said Sharkawy.
Due, in part, to the fact that COVID-19 vaccine research has been prioritized for adults, the vaccines have not been approved by Health Canada for use in youth under the age of 16.
Dr. Fatima Kamalia, a pediatric physician in Thornhill and attending staff member at Mackenzie Health Hospital in Richmond Hill, discussed how new strains have shown to be more transmissible among the younger generation and with no vaccine for them, the importance of respecting health protocols.
Panelist Samiya Abdi, a public health specialist, also addressed calls to expand pilot sites beyond hospitals to improve access at community settings, including community health centres and places of worship, a conversation that will become more prominent in the final rollout phase when the vaccine becomes available to the general public, she said.
Until then, task force co-founder Khedr said that despite the hardships of the pandemic, a silver lining has emerged in grassroots efforts to protect the community through local collaboration among organizations who would otherwise work in silos.
“People connect to their cultural communities, to their linguistic communities, to specific racialized communities, so we need to tap into all kinds of means of educating and informing [the public],” she said.
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Vjosa Isai, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer