vaccine hesitancy and vaccine denial

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Back in 2011 we were looking at the possibility of moving to two Sunday morning congregations. I’d personally been convinced by the passionate persuasion of a couple of leaders, however there were still some members that were unsure and some that were outright opposed. At one point I was even accused of personally seeking to split the church.  Now, there were particular reasons for the concerns and opposition primarily that:

  • It would stretch the church especially in terms of people’s involvement in ministry because we were too small to make the move.
  • They would be cut off from others in the church. There was a particular concern from olde r members that they would not get to see the children going to the earlier service and would miss out on them growing up.
  • That the other service would be favoured and theirs would be second class.

Intriguingly, no-one seemed to have theological issues even though there is a strong argument from the IX Marks school of polity against multi-service and multi-site (which I took time to engage with).   What did come up in conversations at one point was that another church, a much larger city centre congregation had gone to two services and as a result lost people who had gone to other churches. This for some was seen as the clincher. We were about to drive people away.

However, when I enquired as to where these people had gone to having left the other church, it turned out that they’d joined similar sized churches that also happened to have multiple congregations. At that point it became clear that their reasons for leaving were not to do with the change at all. The change was representative of other aspects of discontent resulting from a new pastor arriving and bringing in a whole range of changes. Yet it began to feed into the narrative for us. 

Now, the key thing here is that in making the change, we recognised that people had genuine concerns and reasons for being cautious or opposed.  Some of those reasons were thought out and evidence based, others simply were not true at all.  We wanted to give time to hear the concerns, to love people and patiently work together as a church but at the same time there was a problematic false narrative that risked unsettling the church and we had to challenge that too.

I was reflecting on this event today as I was looking at some of the conversations that have been happening around the role out of the COVID-19 vaccine and hesitancy among some to take it. Now there are all kinds of concerns expressed about the risks from the vaccine including

  • Experience of severe side effects
  • Impact on fertility -both male and female including reports of heavy and painful periods
  • The risk of blood clots from the AZ jab (primarily amongst young women) and myocardia from Pfizer (particularly among young men).
  • Ethical issues about the development of the vaccines
  • The pace at which the vaccines have gone from development to deployment
  • Theological concerns where the vaccines have been associated with end-time issues such as the Mark of the Beast
  • Rumours that the vaccine can be used to alter DNA
  • Question marks raised about how effective the vaccine will be
  • Belief that the risk from COVID-19 has been exaggerated and the human immune system underestimated so that the vaccine is unnecessary.

As you read through the list, you will realise that some of those concerns have a level of legitimacy, they are based on evidence and reason. Others are a lot less credible and associated with an anti-vax conspiracy theory movement. So how do we respond to these concerns?

Well, one thing I’ve picked up is that quite often when claims and concerns are raised on social media that if those claims about the vaccine are challenged then the immediate comeback is that we must not conflate genuine, legitimate concerns with conspiracy theories.  On the one hand I want to agree with that but on the other, I’m not convinced that this attempt to distinguish is the right one or helpful.  What do I mean by this?

Well, it’s worth taking a step back at this stage and considering one crucial bit of information.  In the UK 89.2% of over 16s have now received at least one jab and 81.4% have received both.  This means that the vast majority of the adult population have been presented with the information about COVID, the vaccine and potential side affects and having weighed up the risks have decided they are happy to receive the vaccine. Only a small percentage have not yet taken up the option of a jab and we cannot assume that all of them are choosing not to. Some may be cautious and waiting a bit longer, nervous and plucking up the courage to do so or because of circumstances including a recent bout of COVID been unable to take up the offer of the jab. So, in fact only a small percentage of people, both male and female are actually saying “we are not convinced we should have the vaccine.” 

This is important when we consider the question “what do we mean by legitimate concerns?” I think what we mean is that their concerns are what we would classify as rational and credible.  There are two problems with that. The first is that we risk sending a message that if we consider those concerns genuine and legitimate reasons for people not taking the vaccine then we end up sending a message that the level of confidence that others have in the vaccination programme is not as legitimate as assumed.  Indeed, it has become an argument at times not only against mandatory injection but against even the attempt to persuade and encourage people to take it.

The point here is that the concern is based on some reasoned argument and evidence. Some of those concerns mentioned above are based on such reasoning. In those cases, it is important to respond with reasoned arguments to demonstrate why the risk analysis is incorrect.  And that’s the point. We are at a stage in the vaccine role out where those arguments have been persistently made and where vaccine efficacy and safety has been constantly demonstrated in real life. Whilst those concerns may have been based in reason and evidence at the start, the balance of reason and evidence has shifted dramatically.

We have got to be so careful that we don’t give credibility to the concerns of others in a way that undermines the credibility of the other side, particularly when we are not dealing in a matter that we can afford to be neutral on.  This becomes important at this stage because what we are seeing is the saturation of social media with stories, arguments and claims intended to undermine the rationale for vaccination. Those are happening at a stage where the vaccination programme is so far underway that we cannot pretend that the conspiracy theorists’ aims to prevent Western, especially British people from accepting the jab. Rather, it is sadly part of a narrative intended to undermine confidence in reasoned communication generally. To be clear, I’m not arguing that everyone who raises a concern is a conspiracy theorist. I’ll come back to that shortly.

Before that I want to highlight the second issue. You see, in the end, when it comes to our concern for the well-being of someone refusing the vaccine then it doesn’t really matter whether or not their concerns are legitimate or rational. In a sense they are all genuine concerns and they all have the same affect. The result is that some people don’t get the jab.  It doesn’t matter if you are not receiving the jab because you are worried about receiving the mark of the beast or because you are terrified of needles, the outcome is the same.

This means then that we approach the issue as a “pastoral” one. The distinction isn’t between those who have legitimate concerns and those who don’t when it comes to taking the jab. The distinction is between those who have concerns and need to be advised, reassured, encouraged and those who need to be opposed because their aim is to attack, undermine and harm.

Therefore, part of our concern when seeking to care for the cautious is that they are nervous about being vaccinated and their nerves exist within the context of a narrative that is dominating social media and the conversations they have. It’s a narrative of fear. So, my concern for them is two-fold. I want to address their concerns by listening to them, answering them and then walking alongside the person in their journey to getting the vaccine. And because I’m convinced by the huge weight of evidence that the vaccine is safe, good and necessary my end objective is to lovingly encourage them that they can get the vaccine and that they should. 

The other thing I want to do is to make sure that I’m not contributing to that unhelpful narrative of fear that they are having to swim against. And this is the important bit because we aren’t really dealing with two types of person but three. 

  1. The COVID-19 deniers/anti-vaxxers with their political/religious agenda
  2. People who have concerns and anxieties about the vaccine and who are not being helped or loved by the anti-vaxxers.
  3. Others, including Christians who are joining in the social media conversation and are not alert to the ways in which their contribution may be adding to the narrative rather than helping take way from it.

This is important because there are plenty of people who are not anti-vax, who have had the vaccine themselves and in many cases would have encouraged others to have it. Yet unintentionally and in a way that would horrify them if they thought they were doing it, they risk magnifying the anti-vax narrative.  The magnification is often not around nonsense stuff  such as the Nicki-Minaj type horror stories of massively swollen body parts. Rather, it’s the magnification of concerns around genuine risks and side affects that become swollen out of proportion like said body parts.

To help on this, let me pick up on perhaps the least controversial of examples. I have a friend who is extremely fearful of injection needles.  They are very reluctant to go and get any vaccine.  Now, if I told them that they were being silly because injections never hurt, then I would be lying. Injections do hurt, and for some people more than others.  Yet, equally unhelpful for them would be a news media saturated with people recounting horror stories of how much their injection hurt then that would not help them. They needed the truth that needles hurt to be put into perspective.

Similarly, as a teenager I went into hospital for an operation. We didn’t have social media then but I still picked up on scare stories of people waking up because the anaesthetic didn’t work mid operation. It would have been a lie to tell me that never happens but again it needed putting into the correct perspective so it wasn’t allowed to become the dominant narrative.

Now, I’ve raised the issue partly because yes it does matter in the context of COVID-19 but it also has wider pastoral implications. Generally in church life we are going to come across situations where people are reluctant to make decisions or are making wrong choices and partly that’s because of concerns that have some credibility and others that don’t and often we will find that they are attempting to make a choice against the backdrop of a negative and poisonous narrative which has partly been intentionally fuelled by those with an abusive agenda and partly added to unwittingly by others who mean well.

We have to learn how to distinguish those elements and tease them out. We need to learn how to confront those whose intentions are harmful, to lovingly warn those who are seeking to help but actually hindering and to help support and encourage those who are caught up in the middle of it all. And that’s no easy task!