Impacts of Religious and Conspiracy Beliefs on Disease Prevention: The Case of COVID-19 in Ethiopia

Author(s): Heron Gezahegn Gebretsadik

Background: Ethiopia reported its first case of COVID-19 in early March 2020. Conspiracies and religious beliefs about the origin of COVID-19 have been prevalent and reportedly posed challenges to containing the spread of the disease worldwide. This study aimed to assess the impacts of religious and conspiracy beliefs on disease (COVID-19) prevention activities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Methods: A descriptive epidemiological and ethnographic design was used to achieve the research objective. A scheduled questionnaire was used to collect the required data. Google Forms and MAXQDA software were used to analyze the collected data.

Results: A total of 1118 adult respondents and three key informants (ethnographers) were interviewed to investigate the impacts of religious thoughts and conspiracy beliefs on COVID-19 prevention activities in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The data analysis revealed that 28% (n=313) of the respondents believed that the disease was of divine origin to punish the sinners, while 24.9% (n=278) believed that the virus was fabricated in the laboratory by Western countries to attack the poor living in developing countries including those in Ethiopia. Thus, a significant proportion of respondents from the “divine origin” group did not believe that the spread of COVID-19 could be stopped by preventive measures because the disease was a curse. Respondents in the “laboratory origin” group also thought that preventive measures were ridiculous since the virus is deliberately produced in Western laboratories to stop population growth in developing countries. Both groups exhibited a comparatively higher proportion of Orthodox Church followers when compared to adherents of other religions. On the other hand, the ethnographers reported to the researcher that many Addis Ababa residents rejected hand washing, the use of disinfectants, and the preventive counseling they offered free of charge, citing false religious and conspiratorial beliefs.

Conclusions: This study identified wrong religious thoughts and conspiracy beliefs as real challenges to COVID-19 prevention in Ethiopia. Wrong conspiracy and religious beliefs about the origin of COVID-19 prevented people from adhering to prevention measures recommended by health experts and authorities in Ethiopia. Surely, the disease is now under control worldwide, with no exception in Ethiopia. Nevertheless, health authorities and policymakers need to learn lessons from the COVID-19 outbreak regarding the deleterious effects of religious and conspiracy beliefs in disease prevention.

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