Vaccination shows you care

Most anti-vax propaganda is a parade of hyperbolic “real-life” stories. Photo: Getty Images
Most anti-vax propaganda is a parade of hyperbolic “real-life” stories. Photo: Getty Images
Over the past few weeks I have noticed the seemingly inexorable growth of anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories across social media. Like opening a bag of bread and noticing a few suspicious spots on the top slice of the loaf, only to discover a fetid, furry, utterly green mess at the bottom of the bag, the deeper I dive, the more outrageous the lies I see peddled across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and countless other sites.

Usually, I’m pretty good at ignoring this sort of thing. Fire and brimstone be damned; I have decades of experience zoning out during my father’s weekly sermons and daily lectures.

But since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve found myself unable to ignore the dangerous messages perpetuated by Covid-deniers, anti-vaxxers, and all-round conspiracy theorists. I oscillate between anger and fear; the former directed at entrenched anti-vaxxers who seem hellbent on telling as many lies and florid anti-vax horror stories as possible, and the latter occasioned by worry for my as-yet 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 refused all offers of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine thus far. It wasn’t a question of accessibility, but of fear mongering. She had been visiting some evangelical family friends and had been thoroughly terrified by the mere thought of receiving a quick and relatively painless jab in the arm.

Quite frankly, I am scared and appalled. I stayed up until 2am the other night, video calling my sisters and trying to explain in a gentle and measured way why they should get vaccinated. I don’t know if I got through to them; the aforementioned 18-year-old had to cut the call short in order to return to the bosom of the anti-vax family.

According to the 2013 census, there are more than 15,000 evangelical, born-again, and fundamentalist Christians in New Zealand. This number probably differs depending on one’s definition of “born-again”. It’s a relatively small population, but one I am intimately familiar with, having grown up being taught about the wickedness of the secular world, and the high probability that I would be “persecuted” for my beliefs (although privately, I didn’t hold said beliefs).

Recently, I have come to realise how well anti-vax propaganda lends itself to the tenets of evangelicalism. First of all, there is a distinct divide between the in-group and the out-group; or the sheep and the goats, as my father would say. The us-against-the-world mentality peddled by evangelicals creates a powerful sense of belonging for those ‘‘in-the-know’’. I well remember the bitter taste of ostracism; of knowing that I was different to the rest of my father’s congregation. While the flames of Pentecost burnt fiercely in the hearts of my siblings and church camp peers, I was barely singed. I witnessed the validation and companionship felt by my genuinely religious peers. Similarly, anti-vaxxers find identity and solidarity among their similarly-minded peers. It’s them against the needle-jabbing world.

This dichotomy between the ‘‘saved’’ and the ‘‘unsaved’’ is fostered by a general distrust and suspicion towards science, medicine, the global elite, and mainstream media. I well remember thumbing through the pages of this very newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, until I found the Letters to the Editor section. Invariably, there would be a letter from my father, excoriating evolution, arguing about gay rights, or bemoaning the fall of Christendom. Yet while he doggedly wrote in, day after day, he would still bang his fist on the kitchen table, stating with every thump: “This paper’s gone to the dogs.”

I see the same distrust in my friends’ anti-vax Facebook posts. Unfailingly, any actual literature referenced — most anti-vax propaganda is a parade of hyperbolic “real-life” stories passed on from a cousin’s co-worker’s mum’s neighbour — is published independently or by small presses. It’s not peer-reviewed or verified in any way, apart from perhaps the dubious backing of a few disgraced doctors. In the comment sections, readers thank whoever shared the post for “spreading the truth” and defying the evils of “mainstream media”.

And then there’s the unspoken rule: one must not question one’s elders. Just as most evangelical churches are male-dominated and deeply patriarchal (I’ve yet to meet a female evangelical pastor), anti-vax misinformation is stoked by right-wing, white supremacist, usually male, political figures. To question the teachings of one’s pastor is to defy the Bible itself and the natural order of things. Similarly, those who challenge the beliefs of anti-vax leaders, such as Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy jun, are shunned and belittled.

I’ve heard the pandemic be described as God’s divinely ordained will; a sign of the end of days. It follows that any Government mandate regarding vaccinations or social distancing directly opposes God’s will and violates one’s religious freedom. But I wish they could see it from another angle. Through the God-given ingenuity of science, the miracle of international co-operation, and the complexity and adaptability of the human body, a life-giving vaccine has been created. Shouldn’t we honour this gift and do what we can to protect our fellow children of God?

Moreover, I strongly suspect that such faith in divine ordination does not extend to other real-world dangers and diseases. Would these people run if caught in the shadow or a tsunami wave, or deprive their sick child of life-saving appendicitis surgery? Somehow I doubt it.

Finally, I’d like to highlight Jesus’ second most important commandment: “Love thy neighbour as thyself” . I hope, and perhaps even pray that my anti-vax friends and family members might shift their perspective on the matter of vaccines and personal freedoms. In taking the vaccine, one is protecting one’s neighbour — the neighbour’s newborn baby who is too small to receive the vaccine, the elderly woman one sits next to at church, my immunocompromised asthmatic father.

What would Jesus do?

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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