by Claus Grue*
While the spreading of the coronavirus is about to be contained, challenges remain in countries where the pandemic is downplayed, or even denied. Rumours and conspiracy theories of all kinds around vaccination programmes are deterring people from taking the vaccine.
“Such misinformation only underscores how important it is to coordinate efforts between the health sector and faith-based organizations, and to take spiritual dimensions into account when launching massive cure operations,” says the World Council of Churches (WCC) acting general secretary, Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca, who recently issued a public statement encouraging religious leaders to build trust, combat misinformation and contribute to decisions accepted in their own contexts.
Aligning medical and spiritual aspects
Hesitance towards taking the vaccine is to some extent also a challenge in countries where things are taken seriously and vaccination is encouraged. Medical experts and government officials have called upon people to take the vaccine when it is offered, because it saves lives and eases burdens on hospitals and other health care facilities. But, as church leaders often emphasize, there is also a spiritual dimension to the pandemic, where the ecumenical movement can make a difference, and where the WCC and other faith-based organizations play important roles in promoting vaccinations as acts of solidarity, as well as in dispelling rumours and groundless conspiracy theories.
Around the globe, national church councils and faith communities work together with health organizations to counter false information and to ensure that medical and spiritual aspects are well-aligned.
“We cannot stand idly by when people suffer and are deterred from taking vaccines available to them. This is not just about protecting individuals from getting seriously ill, and in worst case dying, it is about solidarity and compassion,” Sauca continues.
The WCC recently joined with more than 30 Christian health organisations around the globe in raising concerns about unequal access to health services and COVID-19 vaccines. In a statement, the organisations urge all leaders of governments to do everything in their power to make COVID-19 vaccines a global public good – accessible, available and equitably distributed.
On 15 March, a webinar was arranged by the WCC to explore how churches can ensure that stateless people are not left behind in national COVID-19 vaccine rollouts.
Challenging vaccine hesitance
Supporting science-based information in spiritual contexts is another way of reaching out to communities where people for various reasons are hesitant to take the vaccine. In February, the Conference of European Churches arranged a webinar, headlined “Vaccination – curse or blessing? A spiritual and theological approach to COVID-19 vaccination,” where medical experts and theologians explored the current state of scientific knowledge regarding COVID-19 vaccination from an ethical Christian perspective. The webinar, which was supplemented with a discussion paper, provided fact-based information and insights to churches and society, addressing issues of scepticism and conspiracy theories.
In the Middle East, where the pandemic is yet another challenge on top of several others, the Middle East Council of Churches has consistently prioritized factual updates on its website, country by country, about the current situation in terms of number of cases, recoveries and deaths. Church leaders are urging people to get vaccinated, albeit shortages of vaccine have caused delays.
Leading by example
In one of the hardest hit countries, the USA, where more than half a million people have died of COVID-19 so far, the National Council of the Churches of Christ encourages vaccinations through the “Faith4Vaccines” website, a resource being developed to faith leaders where stories about being vaccinated can be shared and spread further via social media. The council also participates in the online “#pastors4vaccines pledge,” encouraging people to get the vaccine and protect their community.
“We still believe that if people witness people they trust being vaccinated and encouraging them to do it, they will listen. So, any campaign needs to feature trusted leaders sharing the message. Elvis Presley was once used to get people to vaccinate for polio. We urge bishops and communion heads to share their photos of being vaccinated,” says Cynthia Griffiths, director of communications and development at National Council of the Churches of Christ.
Such calls will also be echoed during the WCC Week of Prayer in the time of COVID-19, an initiative 22 - 27 March, in response to requests from member churches and ecumenical partners. Throughout the week, prayers and spiritual resources produced in response to the pandemic will be shared. On the fifth day of prayer, themed “protection,” vaccination hesitance caused by misinformation will be addressed. Religious and spiritual leaders are urged to lead by example and receive vaccinations publicly in order to inspire confidence and give assurance to their communities.
“If people of faith and the health-care community speak with one voice, it will substantially contribute to overcoming distrust and hesitancy,” Sauca is convinced.
Serious concerns in Brazil and Tanzania
Brazil and Tanzania are two striking examples of countries where the pandemic has been underplayed. In Brazil, infection rates and death tolls have been rising drastically and the country is struggling to keep the coronavirus outbreak under control. The Episcopal Chamber of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil has issued a pastoral letter amid the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic: “A dizzying wave of infections and new variants has brought more and more pain, grief and a feeling that we are in a whirlwind in which only the grace of God serves as a shield,” it reads. The bishops also point out that the slowness of the government authorities’ responses has led to “irresponsible denialism” on the part of the population.
“Brazil is a step away from isolation from other nations in the world. Only a radical isolation action, the exclusive maintenance of really essential activities and mass vaccination can reverse this situation,” the letter also reads.
In Tanzania, the late president John Pombe Magufuli, whose death was announced yesterday by the Tanzanian government, denied the spread of the virus and refused to buy vaccines for his people. There are now increasing concerns about a spike in cases in Tanzania.
In neighbouring Kenya and Zambia, positions over vaccinations remain divided and the public is largely left in doubt whether to get vaccinated or not. All Africa Conference of Churches has issued a prayer alert in support of the vaccination programme in the continent, encouraging prayers for symmetry between science and faith, because both are believed to have an indispensable role to play in tackling the crisis. Prayers for the success of the programme, and that Africa will get adequate and effective supplies of the vaccines it needs to end the scourge, are also requested in the alert.
The ecumenical movement and its fellowship of churches is well-positioned to reach out to people, particularly in rural areas, with factual, faith-based information about why it is important to take the vaccine.
“It is our obligation to do everything we can to provide hope, relieve the sufferings in hard-hit communities and ease the burdens on exhausted health care workers. Countering false information and false theories is part of that mission,” concludes Sauca.
*Claus Grue is a communication consultant for the World Council of Churches.