Some of the evangelicals have linked coronavirus vaccinations to ‘the mark of the beast’, a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in biblical prophesies.
‘Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated”, said President Joe Biden two weeks ago, spawning the soundbite “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, which quickly went viral in the United States. He was speaking a mere three weeks after celebrating America’s near “independence” from coronavirus, which has suddenly tripled, with hospitalisations and deaths rising sharply among the 90 million eligible but unvaccinated people. With an abundance of three highly effective vaccines authorised for use in the US and widely available, the Biden administration remains confident that the most effective way to attack the virus is to continue to press the importance of the vaccine. It’s no easy fix, though. Many Americans remain resistant or unmotivated to get the shots, despite months of often-creative efforts by federal and state officials to spread information about vaccine safety and accessibility.
Inevitably, in America, politics is playing a major part in the battle against the virus. Of those vaccinated, Democrats are 50% more likely to have received the jab than Trump-supporting Republicans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty, resulting in a total of 17 of the 18 states that voted for Trump in the 2020 election having the lowest vaccination rates. In Alabama, for example, only 39.9% of those eligible have been vaccinated, the lowest rate in the country. Just in the past week, Alabama has seen a 92% increase in coronavirus infections and a 72% rise in hospitalisation. It also hasn’t helped that Republican politicians and right-wing commentators, especially Fox News, have shamelessly sought for months to score points against the Biden administration by portraying vaccination as some kind of a threat to individual freedom, snubbing the fact that the jab is actually a path to collective freedom.
Age is also playing a part in America, with 84% of those 65 and over already vaccinated, by comparison with only 45% of the 18-34 age group. This gap between young and old is, of course, common across the globe. Old people are much more likely than young people to get their Covid shots because old people are much more likely to die from the disease, and they know it. There is some recent evidence, however, that more young people in America are now getting vaccinated as they witness the Delta variant ripping through their age-group. Nothing sharpens the mind more than seeing a huge increase in hospitalisation and deaths among your friends.
But it’s religion that’s causing the greatest challenge in America, especially among those who identify as Christian nationalists, who believe they are God’s chosen people and will be protected from any illness or disease. Some of these evangelicals have even linked coronavirus vaccinations to “the mark of the beast”, a symbol of submission to the Antichrist found in biblical prophesies. A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in February found white evangelicals to be the religious group least likely to say they’d be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Nearly half of those polled said they would not get the vaccination, in some cases motivated by church leaders in the wider conservative evangelical community. One minister at the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has used his pulpit to strongly discourage church members from taking the vaccine. Holding mass church gatherings, even after the state deemed them illegal, he rejected warnings that the pandemic is dangerous, saying “we’re anti-mask, anti-social distancing and anti-vaccine”.
Inevitably, this has led to disaster. According to US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, last week, 99.5% of Covid deaths in America were occurring among unvaccinated people. Stephen Harmon, a member of the Hillsong megachurch in California, had been a vocal opponent of vaccines, even making jokes about not having the vaccine. “Got 99 problems, but vax ain’t one of them”, the 34-year-old tweeted to his 7,000 followers in June. He’s now dead. Despite his struggle with the virus, he joked about the pandemic and vaccines to the end, sharing memes about trusting the Bible over top disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, and insisting that his religious faith would protect him.
It’s not only in America that religion is causing a headache for those promoting the vaccine. It’s happening in many countries across the globe. Take Greece, for example. Here, the major sources of opposition to lockdowns, mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccinations are the influential Greek clerics and the power they wield from the pulpit. The priest at Saint Nicholas’ Church in Athens, Vasileios Voloudakis, regularly lashes out against the government, doctors and the church leadership. “We believe that in here we are in heaven”, he proclaims, adding that “those who alas (sic) have the vaccine will bitterly regret it”.
Voloudakis is one of the most prominent critics of coronavirus restrictions and vaccines in the Greek Orthodox Church. Even though Greece is officially a secular state, the church wields extraordinary power in politics and society, making it difficult for politicians to interfere in religious matters. The church leadership officially supports vaccination, but Seraphim of Kythira, one of the country’s most powerful clerics, is spreading the astonishing conspiracy theory that “vaccines are a product of abortions”! “This product that comes from killed embryos will be injected into our bodies. They want to create a metahuman, a mutated man, a man who will be like a robot”, he said.
Battling against disinformation in politics, age and religion, it’s not surprising that governments are finding it difficult to persuade the refusniks, up to 30% of their populations, to accept the Covid vaccine. Many are resorting to bribery. From 15 July, the Greek government has offered teenagers and young adults vouchers worth 150 euros to get a Covid vaccine. All Greek citizens under the age of 26 will be eligible to apply for digital credit—dubbed the “freedom card”—after they receive their first jab. The government hopes that this incentive will raise the number fully vaccinated by the end of July to 48%. In the US, there are reports of some states offering free beer, free food, and even free tickets for a $1 million lottery.
Working against this strategy, however, are many pro-Trump state legislatures who are enacting ever more ambitious protections for those who refuse vaccines. Many are forbidding business owners to ask for proof of vaccination from their customers. In Republican Florida, legislators are requiring cruise lines, sports centres and bars to serve the unvaccinated. In Montana, they have even forbidden hospitals to require health-care workers to get vaccinated. The owner of a restaurant, Basilico’s in Orange County California, has gone one step further. Calling President Biden’s coronavirus vaccination policies “treasonous and anti-American stupidity”, he says that only unvaccinated customers will be allowed into the restaurant!
A battle is developing between state and federal authorities in the US this week. On Tuesday, President Biden announced that a Covid vaccine mandate for all 4 million federal employees is “under consideration right now”. If implemented, a “no jab-no job and compulsory mask-wearing” policy is bound to cause a strong backlash from Republican politicians as well as from union members.
All world leaders know that at the heart of Covid policy-making is the need to develop herd immunity against the virus, which can be achieved either through the population being infected and recovering with immunity, or through being vaccinated. Because of the potential lethal nature of Covid, the most effective way for the population to get immunity is through vaccination, even for younger age groups who are at lower risk of severe complications from the virus. When enough people have immunity to the current circulating variant, the disease will decline as there are fewer places for the virus to go. Most scientists at the beginning of this pandemic suggested that the threshold of herd immunity was about 70%. But the more virulent Delta variant, the most infectious respiratory virus that many have ever known, has changed all this. University College London reported last week that latest statistics show the threshold for herd immunity from the Delta variant is now between 85% and a whopping 93%.
This creates a huge problem for every country around the globe. If 20% of the population refuse to have the vaccine, or are just hesitant about taking it, herd immunity from Covid is simply not possible. The virus will continue to circulate, immunity will wane and new variants, even more lethal than Delta, will emerge. Months or years down the road the world will still be battling the threat, and having to deal with colossal surges. This will be the depressing new normal.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.