Editor’s note: This article is based on a group Zoom interview that took place on February 17th. Ian, Jake and Jocelyn each represent a different perspective on covid-19 vaccination.
Ian’s father, 78, won’t get vaccinated, which greatly concerns Ian’s vaccinated brother. “That whole internal processing of complex, simultaneous and competing priorities is a challenge we’re all facing,” Ian, a 41-year-old from Ontario, said. Ian has not received the covid vaccine yet. In Alberta, neither has Jocelyn, who worries about the adverse effects of covid vaccines.
Labels like “pro-vax,” “anti-vax,” and “vaccine hesitant” are dividing families, churches and our nation. But they don’t have to. Christian Courier brought together three Christians from across Canada (and across the vaccine spectrum) to have a potentially tense joint interview. In God’s grace, it turned out to be a fruitful conversation. As Jake (who is fully vaccinated against covid) observed, a Christian posture of love and compassion is critical to addressing the polarization in the church and wider society: “My obligation to be present and caring outweighs my obligation to be convincing.” And that obligation starts with those close to us.
Beyond the caricatures
Ian’s family was headed to Florida for a space shuttle launch in 2020 when covid restrictions canceled their trip. As the new reality settled in, Ian wondered whether his work as a business consultant would dry up. Jocelyn’s pandemic moment came when school closed and her children moved to virtual learning from home. Jake vividly remembers leaving work at the office in mid-March to stay home for two weeks. He asked coworkers if they thought it would last longer: “Clearly we had no idea what we were in for.”
Jake is an engineer with the Ontario provincial government and his wife works in the healthcare sector. This prior involvement in scientific research gave them confidence in the process that developed m-RNA vaccines. They were vaccinated as soon as possible and chose to have their children vaccinated. “The primary concern for us was the consequences of serious illness and death that we saw with covid,” particularly for the vulnerable, said Jake.
Ian heard this message from the other side. “I’ve actually been told that I’m letting down the world by not getting the vaccine,” he said. He feels that the portrayal of “vaccine hesitant” puts an impossible weight of responsibility on his shoulders. “When people put a label on me then they can treat me like a category rather than like a person.” Ian would call himself strongly pro-vaccine and also not vaccinated for covid yet “because the long-term results just aren’t there.” While they wait on the data they need before accepting the vaccine, Ian’s family follows the public health mandates “almost religiously,” with few exceptions. He laughed at the memory of wearing masks to the grocery store before it was mandated, explaining repeatedly to store workers, “I haven’t been traveling and I’ve been healthy. . .”
Jocelyn, a mother of four from Alberta, prefers “pro-informed choice” over the label of “anti-vax.” Her digging into vaccine research started in 2013, as she saw the children of friends react negatively to vaccines. “We need to have all the information,” Jocelyn explained, including the risks and benefits of the covid vaccine and the risks and benefits of the virus. The problem is, she said, that at this point in time it’s impossible to have information on long term effects of the covid vaccine. “It would be way easier to be vaccinated,” Jocelyn admitted, “not to be basically cast out from a part of society. I worry about that for our kids, but I feel convicted enough that this is where we’re standing. I’m not saying ‘never.’”
Known & unknown
Jake is thankful to be one of over four billion people worldwide vaccinated against covid with mainly positive results. Canadians trust the combination of government regulation, trained professionals and corporations, whose due-diligence, in the case of the latter, is motivated by profit, in most other areas of life (and for the other medicines we take). “We don’t question the formulation of our rubber tires, or the training of the pilot on the airplane,” Jake observed. Why would these vaccines be different? “I acknowledge your fear of the unknown,” Jake said to Jocelyn, “but we have known information at hand about covid consequences,” and there is reason to fear the known. Statistics show unvaccinated people filling Intensive Care Units (ICUs) at higher percentages, making hospital beds unavailable for people needing urgent surgery.
But for Jocelyn, trust is hard when messages around the vaccine have changed: the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated keeps increasing (“Where is the unvaccinated control group?” she asked), and vaccines are no longer about stopping transmission but a form of self-protection. Jocelyn knows people in her small town community who developed serious health issues after receiving the vaccine, including one woman whose side effects were medically confirmed to be related to it. Jocelyn contracted covid over a year ago herself, losing her smell for a few weeks. She is worried that re-injection every three to six months will increase potential adverse effects: “What’s been lost in this whole conversation, is that there is risk in the vaccine as well.”
Ian sees “huge” short term benefits to the vaccine but says the “mainly” in “mainly positive” results deserves an asterisk. Or maybe several. With a career background as a chartered accountant who detects financial cheating, Ian doesn’t want potential risks to be generalized. “What are the risks? I’m not a medical person, and a simple observation is that a lot of decisions are made based on politics, not medicine.” Ian wants to see data on age, weight and health risk related to covid deaths. (Ian and Jake live in Ontario, but Jocelyn said data on age and comorbidities was shared in Alberta. “I felt that was really helpful and gave me perspective,” she said.)
More specifically, Ian wants an asterisk that makes explicit, “What statistics show are only the reported number of adverse reactions.” Canadians are expected to report adverse effects via their doctor or nurse, who fill out the Adverse Effects from Immunization form. Doctors cannot be held liable for citizens not reporting their own reactions, but Ian has another concern: the report depends on the doctor’s evaluation. What if a doctor doesn’t consider the reaction a side effect of the vaccine, and therefore doesn’t file it? (Research after the conversation confirmed that in Ontario and Alberta, doctors are required by law to report adverse effects. As of February 18, the government of Canada received these reports for five people out of every 10,000 vaccinated for covid.)
Jake is impressed by how evidence is being collected, and how the evidence continues to inform the deployment of the covid vaccine even after its release. When data emerged from Europe in 2021 that the AstraZeneca vaccine was reported to cause blood clots, provinces across Canada suspended its use for certain people who may have been at higher risk a month after Health Canada’s initial authorization of the vaccine. “That was very responsive,” said Jake. “That speaks to the trustworthiness of the process if evidence of risk emerges.”
Where does unity lie?
The question of vaccine position isn’t only about evidence. It is framed in identity language. This complicates the question of how someone might change their mind. Instead of identifying people by their vaccination status, we can treat them as individuals and children of God, said Jocelyn. “My pro-vax friends might impact his kingdom in a different way than I will. And I might reach other people because I’m more on the other side.” We can’t do everything, and Ian values those near him who chose the vaccine: “I just love the heart of people I know who say, ‘I want to have every person I know and every person I don’t know be protected and be honoured.’”
Jake’s kids, and everyone else’s, ended up staying home from school much longer than the initial two weeks. But not everything has been bad. Ian, Jocelyn and Jake all count lockdown time with their families as a blessing. Far from closing, Ian’s business flourished during the pandemic. Jocelyn and her husband chose to transition their children fully to homeschooling – a decision she recognizes they are privileged to make. “Covid is the big thing right now,” Jake said, but maybe two years from now we’ll look back and marvel “how things can divide people; how we build our walls around ourselves and our own opinions.”
As the Zoom call ended, everyone expressed the wish to meet in person – although maybe for a different conversation. The call ended as it began, with laughter and blessings over each other.
Looking for new questions?
If your covid conversations are turning circles faster than a dog chasing its tail, maybe it’s time for new questions. Here are a few of the questions CC prepped before hosting this group interview:
• How have you calculated risk to you and your community? Has your perception of risk changed over the pandemic?
• What is your most trusted source of information about the pandemic and vaccine?
• How do you feel caricatured by others because of your decision about the vaccine? How would you want people to see you?
• What is oversimplified in this conversation?
• What do you think the “other side” wants? What do you already know, or want to understand, about the “other side”?
• How does your faith influence how you perceive people who disagree with you on vaccinations? How does it influence your own decision regarding the vaccine?
• What worries you about how Canada moves forward? How can your church and family community be there for you?
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