Vaccine Hesitancy

A sizeable number of Americans – 25% to 40% across various polls – say they have no plans to receive a coronavirus vaccination. Even White evangelicals show hesitancy – 45% in a recent Pew Research Center poll. Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist public policy division, has a different perspective for resistors: “These vaccines are cause for evangelicals to celebrate and give thanks to God. I am confident that pastors and lay members alike want churches full again and vaccines will help all of us get there sooner rather than later.” Voices like Moore’s try to emphasize the message of Jesus, who preached the value of a social conscience. From Mark 12:31: Jesus is asked which commandment is the first of all. Jesus replies, “The first is,” ‘The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” To the extent that getting the vaccination helps protect your neighbor’s health, hesitancy seems to conflict with a central tenet of Christianity.

In spite of this apparent contradiction, evangelicals are really no different than others in the reasons given for resistance. One reason is that the government released the vaccine before effectiveness was proven, and that same government is now forcing us to do something against our will. Resistors also believe that the vaccine doesn’t work, will make them sick, or has too many side effects. Many believe the vaccine is linked to aborted fetuses.

The thing to note about these and other reasons for avoiding a vaccination is that they’re all focused on emotion. One man says, “I feel like, and I know it works medically, but when you put something in you to help you stop from getting it, that just doesn’t work for me. I’ve never liked the idea of that.” The phrase “put something in you to help you stop from getting it” is a comment based on fear and misunderstanding; it focuses on a needle being inserted into the body. That image awakens a primeval fear that penetration of the skin signifies delivery of an impurity into the body, a wound, a threat to life. News coverage shows again and again people having the needle inserted into their arm, and many recoil at this sight.

There’s a coping lesson in all this: Fear, anger, distrust – rational problem-solving succumbs to these emotions because they prevent judicious examination of beliefs. Denial takes over as values like a social conscience, humility, and empathy get lost in a flood of ego-protecting justifications that bring you phony solace and help you avoid reality. Why is the comfort phony? Because this denial and avoidance tell you – falsely – that your self-concept has no validity (“I am unworthy.”), and that you are unable to confront and deal with factual experience (“I am weak and incompetent.”). You don’t really want to face the emotions that vaccination arouses in you, so you detour around it, rationalizing your avoidance – “It’s the government trying to control me.” “It’s like letting poison enter my body.”  Such rationalizations can render you helpless and make you self-critical, which can lead to depression.

Pandemic aside, for those who might be open to at least considering any vaccination – whether seasonal flu, coronavirus, HPV, shingles, pneumonia, chickenpox, measles, mumps, hepatitis, polio, and others, either for themselves or for their children – it is reasonable to ask: “How do I deal with my fear, and change my attitude about being vaccinated? How do I break the avoidance cycle?” Here is how we answer those questions: Remember, these are stress and coping issues that require solving a problem, not focusing on fear and other emotions. Thus, you must make a plan that involves four steps. First, accept your fear and other emotions: “I feel distress from natural fears that tell me I am a normal, valid human being.” Second, examine your accountability and rational thinking: “Why should I blame the government? I follow many government guidelines. I wear my seatbelt; I follow restrictions on smoking; I pay taxes; I read warning labels on food and drug packages.” Third, identify your values: “I believe in personal effort, not just receiving handouts; I believe in the power of love over hate; I believe in helping and respecting others – I don’t let my friends drive drunk; I recognize that life is not always just about me, that I’m a member of a community.” Fourth, take action: “If I want to actualize who I am, and be true to myself and my values, I must do things not only with my own welfare in mind, but also remembering the welfare of others. I will do my part for the health and general welfare of society. I will discuss with my physician about my family being vaccinated along with me; I will volunteer at a health center; I will share my story with others.”

As we point out many times in blog entries, the best way to find yourself, to increase your self-esteem, humility, and empathy, and to experience fully the richness of life, is to act in ways that bring you satisfaction, contentment, and gratification; to perform actions that complement your values, that include others in the equation, and that engage your social conscience. You will smile, and leave a daily legacy where people remember you because you made them smile, too.

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