Last Friday, almost exactly a year after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, my wife and I boarded a plane in Auckland to return to Europe after three months in the abnormally corona-free environment of New Zealand.
Our arrival back in Amsterdam – after passing through three eerily-quiet airports – was a stark reminder that the abnormal is still the norm. Normality remains abnormal. While we like to believe that widespread vaccination could soon restore ‘normal’ routines, experts warn that major impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic could last well into 2022 and beyond.
Inefficient vaccination delivery programmes, hostility towards vaccination, the emergence of new virus variants, and the unwillingness of restive populations to accept restrictions designed to check transmission, could all conspire to prevent normal travel, trade and supply chains from returning soon.
Unless there is unprecedented global co-operation to halt transmission everywhere, including waiving vaccine patents, diversifying production of vaccines and supporting vaccine delivery to poor countries, normality is still two or three years away. Mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene, testing, contact tracing and quarantine will continue until high levels of population immunity are reached.
High-income countries may well be able to have the majority of their populations vaccinated by early 2023, enabling international travel between certain low transmission countries, and businesses, restaurants and schools to reopen. Yet most poorer countries will have to wait until the following year. Only generous and sustained aid from richer nations could change that.
Of all people, Christians should respond to this global crisis with trust, responsibility and solidarity, and should reflect on the ethical and theological issues raised. That is the conclusion of a helpful paper summarised below and released this month by the Thematic Group on Science, New Technologies and Christian Ethics of the Conference of European Churches.
Living in our world today means being dependent on others, the paper stresses. This requires basic trust without which human life cannot flourish. As a part of the whole community, each individual bears a responsibility for his/her neighbour’s welfare; as well as for the common good, a choice for solidarity.
Trust does not mean blind and uncritical confidence but goes hand in hand with critical enquiry. Yet Paul tells us to test everything and to hold fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If we do not trust others to be benevolent, living together is not possible.
According to most scientists, the current vaccines approved in Europe are safe; i.e. there are very few serious side effects and potential long-term effects will be monitored. While no miracle remedy, vaccination is an essential and efficient way of reducing the impact of the pandemic, considering the current state of our knowledge.
Vaccination, like scientific knowledge and research, could become a blessing or a curse to humankind, without being either good nor evil itself. The purpose and the practice must always be critically evaluated for its ethical purpose. In exceptional situations, such as a pandemic, the risks must be weighed. Exceptional situations pose new questions for theology and ethics that cannot always be answered with conventional thought patterns. (Here’s a really helpful explanation from a Christian expert explaining that no vaccine contains fetal cells.)
Being vaccinated means acting responsibly towards our neighbour. Large-scale vaccination reduces the burden of the disease on the healthcare systems. Yet vaccination represents a potential compromise with respect to the inviolability of the body. Without trivialising this intervention, we see it as theologically justifiable because, from a Christian perspective, the rational and responsible human being and the sensible body belong inseparably together. Jesus himself says: There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile (Mark 7:14). Acting responsibly towards our neighbour may also make it necessary for us to limit our right to bodily integrity.
From a Christian perspective, we believe it is imperative to do everything possible to protect our neighbour and serve the common good. Without limiting people’s freedom of choice not to be vaccinated, everyone should be offered the opportunity to be vaccinated.
It is a moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable people first. Rich countries with highly developed healthcare systems have funds available to purchase vaccines, presently only available in limited quantities. Jesus invites us to act in solidarity with those in need (Matthew 25:40). Christian solidarity and justice require equitable access to vaccination. Therefore, we call for global cooperation towards a fair distribution of vaccines, including to poor countries.
Spiritual leaders enjoy a relationship of special trust with the faithful. All who bear spiritual responsibility in churches and religious communities should encourage open discussion, free from fear-mongering about vaccination.
Global normality is not returning soon. Why not use this paper to start a discussion on how we can grow in trust, responsibility and solidarity?
P.S. Check out last Tuesday’s Schuman Talk here:
Till next week,