Vaccination Shows You Care | Otago Daily Times News Online
Usually, I’m pretty good at ignoring that sort of thing. Let fire and brimstone be damned; I have decades of zoning experience during my father’s weekly sermons and daily lectures.
But since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have found myself unable to ignore the dangerous messages being perpetuated by Covid deniers, anti-vaxxers and all-out conspiracy theorists. I oscillate between anger and fear; the former was aimed at the entrenched anti-vaccines who seem determined to tell as many anti-vaccine lies and horror stories as possible, and the latter caused by concern for my unvaccinated siblings and immunocompromised father.
I learned via Facebook Messenger a few days ago that my 18-year-old sister, a kindergarten teacher in training, had so far refused all offers of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. It was not a question of accessibility, but of fear. She had visited evangelical family friends and had been terrified at the mere thought of receiving a quick and relatively painless blow to the arm.
Frankly, I am scared and dismayed. I stayed awake until 2 a.m. the other night, calling my sisters on video and trying to explain in a gentle, measured way why they should get the shot. I don’t know if I managed to reach them; the aforementioned 18-year-old had to cut the appeal short in order to get back into the fold of the anti-vax family.
According to the 2013 census, there are over 15,000 evangelical, born again, and fundamentalist Christians in New Zealand. This number probably differs depending on the definition of “born-again”. It is a relatively small population, but one with which I am intimately familiar, having grown up learning about the wickedness of the secular world and the high probability that I will be “persecuted” for my beliefs (although in private I have not. held say beliefs).
Recently, I realized how anti-vax propaganda lends itself to the principles of evangelism. First of all, there is a separate division between the internal group and the external group; or sheep and goats, as my father would say. The us-against-the-world mentality conveyed by evangelicals creates a powerful sense of belonging for those who “know”. I well remember the bitter taste of ostracism; to know that I was different from the rest of my father’s congregation. As the flames of Pentecost burned fiercely in the hearts of my brothers and sisters and fellow church campmates, I was hardly scorched. I have witnessed the validation and fellowship felt by my truly religious peers. Likewise, anti-vaccines find identity and solidarity among their like-minded peers. It’s them against the needle stick world.
This dichotomy between the “saved” and the “unsaved” is fostered by a general distrust and suspicion of science, medicine, the world elite and the mainstream media. I remember well flipping through the pages of that same newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, until I found the Letters to the Editor section. Invariably there was a letter from my father denouncing evolution, discussing gay rights, or lamenting the fall of Christendom. Yet as he stubbornly wrote, day after day, he still banged his fist on the kitchen table, declaring with every thud, “This paper has gone to the dogs.”
I see the same mistrust in my friends’ anti-vax Facebook posts. Infallibly, any actual literature referenced – most anti-vax propaganda is a parade of hyperbolic “real life” stories passed down from a cousin colleague’s mother neighbor – is published independently or by small presses. . It is by no means peer-reviewed or verified, other than perhaps questionable support from a few disgraced doctors. In the comments sections, readers thank those who shared the post for “spreading the truth” and challenging the misdeeds of the “mainstream media”.
And then there is the unwritten rule: you must not question your elders. Just as most evangelical churches are male-dominated and deeply patriarchal (I have yet to meet an evangelical pastor), anti-vax misinformation is fueled by right-wing, white supremacist, usually male political figures. To question the teachings of your pastor is to challenge the Bible itself and the natural order of things. Likewise, those who challenge the beliefs of anti-vaccine leaders, such as Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jun, are rejected and belittled.
I have heard the pandemic described as the divinely ordained will of God; a sign of the end of days. It follows that any government mandate regarding vaccinations or social distancing directly opposes the will of God and violates religious freedom. But I wish they could see it from another perspective. Through the ingenuity of God-given science, the miracle of international cooperation, and the complexity and adaptability of the human body, a vital vaccine has been created. Should we not honor this gift and do what we can to protect our brother children of God?
Further, I strongly suspect that such faith in divine ordination does not extend to other dangers and diseases of the real world. Would these people flee if caught in the shadows or in a tsunami wave, or would they deprive their sick child of life-saving appendicitis surgery? Somehow I doubt it.
Finally, I would like to underline the second most important commandment of Jesus: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. I hope, and maybe even pray, that my anti-vaccine friends and family members can change their perspective on the issue of vaccines and personal freedoms. By taking the vaccine, you protect your neighbor – the neighbor’s newborn baby who is too young to get the vaccine, the elderly woman you sit next to in church, my immunocompromised asthmatic father.
What would Jesus do?
– Jean Balchin, former English student at the University of Otago, studies at the University of Oxford after obtaining a Rhodes scholarship.