Why is Indonesia concerned about a halal COVID-19 vaccine?

Health workers in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO in Asia and the Pacific shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

Indonesia’s government is working to ensure that the country’s options for COVID-19 vaccines will comply with Islamic law. However, such efforts may end up eroding the public’s trust in the vaccine and undermine the country’s fight against the pandemic.

By Umair Jamal

As the Indonesian government works to secure access to a COVID-19 vaccine, its leaders have raised one issue that has little to do with antibodies or clinical trials. The government maintains that any COVID-19 vaccine for Indonesia should receive halal certification before it is made commercially available.   

Many vaccines are produced using products derived from pigs, including gelatin and the enzyme Trypsin, but there are often non-porcine alternatives that can be used in vaccine production.

In part, the government fears that the country’s Islamist leaders may issue a fatwa, or religious decree, against a COVID-19 vaccine, which would undermine its fight against the pandemic.

However, the public debate over a halal vaccine may itself also end up hurting the country’s vaccination efforts, at least as long as the issue remains unresolved.

Government focuses on halal issue for COVID-19 vaccine

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has warned his ministers not to rush the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines unless they receive a halal certification, guaranteeing that they are permissible under Islamic law.

“We should consider public perception regarding the halal status of potential COVID-19 vaccines,” Widodo was quoted as saying in a meeting in October. “Public communication regarding halal status, price, quality and distribution must be well-prepared.” Vice President Maruf Amin, a senior Muslim cleric, has confirmed the president’s views.

“We hope everything is set, meaning that the supply is ready and we have a commitment from the vaccine makers,” said Achmad Yurianto, the Health Ministry’s director-general of disease prevention and control. “We are awaiting an EUA [emergency use authorization] from BPOM [the Food and Drugs Monitoring Agency] and a halal certificate from MUI [the Indonesian Ulema Council].”

The country is reportedly set to start administering vaccines for COVID-19 as early as November. British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has committed to providing 100 million doses of a vaccine to Indonesia, though MUI hasn’t made an official announcement about the drug. The government has also discussed vaccine procurement with other pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Cansino, G42/Sinopharm and Sinovac.

But all efforts to start the vaccination programs are now at the mercy of religious decree.

Halal debate may impact Indonesia’s fight against COVID-19

The threat of a decree declaring a COVID-19 vaccine forbidden—or haram—under Islamic law could very well undermine the government’s plans to contain the virus.

In a similar case in 2018, MUI declared that Indonesia’s rubella and measles vaccines were haram because ingredients from pigs were used in the vaccine production process. The announcement resulted in a massive drop in the number of children vaccinated. 

Since then, the domestic firms have been making efforts to develop vaccines that the Islamists can approve as halal. For instance, the state-owned Bio Farma PT has joined the race to develop a measles and rubella vaccine that meets halal standards, turning to alternative solutions like bovine gelatin. However, it may reportedly take years before the vaccine will reach those who need it.

In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, Indonesia will have to rely on international companies to fulfill its needs and there is a significant chance that clerics will find cause to declare a vaccine haram. In once potentially promising move, Bio Farma PT is partnering with Chinese firm biopharmaceutical company Sinovac to develop a vaccine with halal guidelines in mind.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (left), pictured here in 2016. Photo: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), CC BY 2.5 AR, via Wikimedia Commons

Why is the government entering a religious debate?

President Widodo understands the consequences of getting on the wrong side of hardline Islamists and has made considerable concessions to religious conservatives as part of his efforts to win at the polls and rule effectively.

In Indonesia, religion is the winning ticket for the country’s politicians. Hardline Islamists have been gaining power in the country for years. The rise of conservative Islamism poses an increasingly significant challenge for any political party that comes to power in Indonesia.

During the last general election in 2019, Jokowi chose Maruf Amin as his running mate. Amin is known as one of the top Muslim clerics in Indonesia with a history of intolerance that includes attacks on Shiites, Ahmadiyya Muslims, LGBTQ people and other groups.

“Jokowi’s surprise pick of Maruf last year was widely seen as bending the knee to religious voters in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country,” noted Krithika Varagur in an article in Foreign Policy.

In 2017, hardline Islamist protests unseated Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for allegedly committing blasphemy. More than 150 people have been sent to prison on blasphemy charges in Indonesia. Perhaps, for Jokowi’s government, it is more important to please Islamists rather than to get access to the most effective COVID-19 vaccine. Doing so could prevent potential challenges from the country’s Islamists as they gain political power in the country.

As the government understands there is no way to ignore the influence of Islamists in the country, Jokowi and his ministers may formally approach different Islamist bodies in to get an official decree covering all vaccines that would be introduced in the country.

With the government actively discussing the halal issue, keeping Islamists on board appears to be an extra hurdle for the world’s largest Muslim country in battling the pandemic.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15