This week, the Pope iterated one of his most assertive statements on vaccinations, urging individuals to get vaccinated as it is a “moral obligation.” Previously referring to vaccines as an “act of love,” the Pope denounced rhetoric discouraging vaccination as “baseless information.”
The Pope’s pro-vaccine sentiments come at a pressing time when COVID-19 cases worldwide have skyrocketed. The sentiments were delivered through the Pope’s speech to ambassadors at the Holy See, a conference where the Vatican sets foreign policy goals for the year. An average of 2.7 million cases emerge worldwide every day, and the distribution of the highly transmissible Omicron variant has increased infection and caused businesses and schools to close yet again. Many universities across the U.S. have transitioned to virtual learning, pushing back in-person learning by two weeks. Concerns over vaccination rates in the U.S. are compounded by Biden’s recent effort to establish a nationwide business vaccine and testing mandate, which was blocked this week by the Supreme Court. In conversation with CNN, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called the ruling “disappointing,” saying “We’ve got to continue to do everything we can to invest, not just in vaccines and boosters… but also expand the supply of therapeutics… expand the supply of testing, to make masks actually more available to the public.”
While health officials push for improved public health legislation, the Pope’s backing of COVID-19 immunization campaigns illustrates the evolving and nuanced culture around vaccination. Vaccine hesitancy and distrust of public health campaigns have been prominent issues during the pandemic, with certain branches of distrust in the U.S. arising from religious circles. Many Catholics have refused the vaccine on the grounds that vaccine research derives from aborted fetus cells. Nationwide research conducted in 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute has found that religious affiliation can correlate with vaccine hesitancy, acceptance, and refusal. Their survey found that white evangelical Protestants were most likely to refuse the vaccine, with 56% saying they were vaccinated or would consider receiving it. Other white Christian groups were more tolerant, with 74% of white mainline Protestants and 79% of white Catholics considering themselves vaccine acceptant, according to the PRRI survey.
While around 62% of Americans are vaccinated, according to NPR, frustration is building with those who choose not to get vaccinated. Two-thirds of surveyed Americans believe that non-vaccinated individuals are putting the general public at risk, with frustrations specifically targeted at those who claim religious exemptions. The Pope’s declaration in support of vaccination emphasizes the larger role religious leaders play in ensuring public health. Communities listen, and often deeply adhere to the preachings of their respective religious leaders. In a world already grappling with millions of deaths and rampant infection and entering its third year of the pandemic, the Pope’s support illustrates the key role of our religious institutions and leaders and the new vaccine culture that has settled into our world.
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