It’s funny, I just finished watching Utopia, an ultraviolent TV show on Amazon about a group of ‘deep state’ operatives who create a vaccine (and a disease as well, “Russian Flu”) in order to inject everyone with a vaccine that will sterilize 95 percent of the population. Honestly, it was quite an engaging show but I’m not surprised that Amazon declined to make a second season considering, well, the current pandemic raging and worldwide vaccination effort!1
When that’s in the cultural background, and fearmongering around vaccines more generally is in the foreground (as well as an ongoing general distrust of government and their real medical abuses in years past),2 I can see why 28.5 percent of people around the world are hesitant to get the COVID vaccine.
Add to that the fear embedded in taking action rather than not: I remember listening to a doctor (and vaccine proponent) say on the radio how scared he was watching the needle go into his young son’s arm (for a routine vaccination) surely imagining the things that could go wrong, even if there’s just a small chance. This is a real and visceral response, no matter how many facts you know, reflected in countless actual and fictional scenarios:
“If we don’t climb down the cliff right now, Jimmy, the monster is going to eat us.”
“But I’m scared of heights, Daddy. Maybe it won’t find us?”
Chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp, chomp. Chomp.
Yes, there’s a tiny risk in getting vaccinated, but that’s miniscule compared to no one getting it and all of us walking around spreading increasingly virulent strains of COVID. (With a death rate of around 2 percent—global and US average—even at current US infection rates of 4.7 percent, that means a .094% (94 out of 100,000) chance of dying from COVID—and if those numbers aren’t convincing, how about the 2.77 million deaths that have occurred so far worldwide?)
Now let’s compare that chance with the chance of dying from a vaccine. In the United States, 126 million people have gotten the vaccine so far. 2,216 have died afterward.3 To be clear, this is not to say they died from the vaccine. People die. My father, days after receiving a card in the mail saying ‘Your heart is in good shape, so come get your first colonoscopy’ (he was in his 50s), died of a sudden heart attack. If he had gotten a vaccine in his last days, that would have been flagged.
But even if every single case was caused by the vaccine, that’s a .00175 percent chance of dying. That’s like playing Russian Roulette with one bullet in a revolver with 56,859 chambers. Those odds are dramatically smaller than getting into a car accident (which are 1 out of 102 over a lifetime!) And yet, we get into our cars nearly every day.4
And there have been many articles investigating these deaths. This DW article looked at investigations around the world into these post-vaccination deaths. In Germany, for example, of the 113 deaths in vaccine recipients within 19 days after vaccination 20 died of COVID, 10 from other infectious diseases, and 33 had serious pre-existing conditions. The article doesn’t account for the other 70 but even assuming those were truly from the vaccine, that’d be like adding another 35,000 chambers to your revolver (putting the risk in the same category as dying in a plane crash).
So, yes, the risk isn’t zero but it’s pretty darn close. And considering for most people the side effects are small, and COVID can be debilitating and enduring even when not deadly, there’s even more reason to get this vaccine.
The God Card
Interestingly, this essay was conceived with a desire to talk about how religious institutions are starting to encourage their adherents to get vaccinated—not a statistical breakdown of vaccination deaths. I read an article in The New York Times on how rabbis, priests, and imams have all been recruited to encourage their adherents to get vaccinated: preaching from the pulpit (couching it in religious terms—such as getting the vaccine is being a Good Samaritan); offering their synagogues, churches, and mosques as vaccination centers, and having conversations about vaccination with their parishes.
I’m happy that this is the case. Especially after many earlier articles during COVID-times about church leaders and adherents saying God will protect us, and flouting and even fighting social distancing and mask protocols. Though I do wonder how many churches are not advocating for their adherents to get vaccinated.
But it’s good that many religious leaders are finding ethical reasons, historical justifications, and holy book passages to support getting vaccinated. One, Rabbi Adir Posy, said “It’s a Jewish mandate to take whatever lifesaving measures are necessary, even in the case of potential risk” and pointed to how “rabbis defended the novel smallpox vaccine by ruling that “you can enter into a small risk in order to avoid a bigger one down the line.”” (Climb down the damn cliff, Jimmy!)
As Rabbi Posy noted, “For some people, that religious argument helps move the needle a little. So to speak.” For me, this sparks the question: what religious or philosophical argument is necessary beyond good science to persuade a Gaian (that is to say, an individual who understands they are part of and completely dependent on the living Earth for their ability to survive and thrive)?
Vaccines for Gaians?
I imagined that no further persuasion other than the scientific data would be necessary. But I sent out a note to those in our Gaian listserv and found that there were some thought-out reasons to hesitate (even if no one specifically said they would not get the vaccine). So below is my attempt to give the needle a nudge for any ecocentric-minded individuals out there that may still be on the fence.
In case of ambivalence due to “letting nature take its course.”
Will some Gaians be reluctant because this vaccine, or vaccines more generally, are not “natural?” That would suggest never getting another vaccine, antibiotic or complicated medical intervention again.5
Besides, it wasn’t nature that caused COVID-19, any more than it was nature that caused the Fukushima disaster, or the massive flooding after Hurricane Harvey. It’s the way humans have built—whether nuclear power plants on an Earthquake-prone coast, removal of wetlands and excessive paving of lowlands, or ‘just’ changing the climate. Like these “unnatural disasters,” COVID is an “unnatural pandemic” brought about by encroachment into wildlands, concentrated livestock markets, and our sheer overpopulation and our (unnatural) ability to travel quickly around the world. At this point, nothing is natural about the dominant human way, so the idea that at this moment, when so many lives are at stake we should act naturally, doesn’t make much sense.6
We’re overpopulated so we should let these diseases spread. Or COVID Lockdowns have been good for the environment.
I don’t know of anyone actually saying that. Not even the villains in Utopia want to kill millions or billions on purpose—they just want to stop them from having so many kids. But this is nonsense anyway. There is strong data that shows that epidemics aren’t going to correct human overpopulation. Yes, there will be a downtick but population momentum will keep bringing us up—until we consciously choose otherwise. Same with lockdowns. Sure, there was a momentary blip downward in CO2 emissions. But not in any enduring way. We must take real political action if we are to save ourselves. We can’t expect a crisis to do it for us.7
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I remember reading that 8 percent of the human genome came from viruses. And I heard from one Gaian that getting viruses is actually good for you. (He shared an excerpt of a book arguing that common colds actually help purge the body of toxins and cancerous cells—a hypothesis I had never heard before and admittedly remain skeptical of). So is vaccinating ourselves preventing our bodies from evolving and/or ‘cleaning house’ so to speak? At least for those young and healthy enough to survive the disease?
There is some evidence that developing country residents have had fewer deaths and illnesses because they are more regularly exposed to an array of viruses. (Just as we’re figuring out that we need to expose our children to dirt and microbes early or we risk their immune systems focusing on their own bodies instead.)8 So I get the idea that perhaps vaccination—at least of the young—may not always be productive. But perhaps one could argue that more for something like the flu than COVID. I choose not to vaccinate myself or my son each year against the flu because of the toxic burden (and mediocre results) of these vaccines, and the relatively low risk of mortality or long-term morbidity of this virus. Do I want to dose myself with aluminum every year to reduce the odds of flu? Right now the answer is no. When I’m 65, the answer will probably be yes. But as far as COVID goes, the risk and thus the answer is very different.9
It is Gaia’s Will or Gaia is teaching us a lesson.
This I feel is easiest to debunk. I do not see Gaia as a conscious entity who, like God, tests us. Instead, we are part of Gaia, not separate. We either figure out how to be in respectful relationship with Gaia or we die. And Gaia starts anew.
As for Gaia teaching us a lesson, metaphorically one can argue this. We’ve crossed boundaries, disrespected Earth’s laws, and thus the system is unravelling and causing us harm (this applies whether we look at cyclones or coronaviruses). This specific instance was less horrific than it could have been—“just” 2.5 million people dead, mostly toward the end of their natural lifespans—and in theory should teach us humility. But that all was just the luck of the draw. It could have easily targeted children, like polio, or been ten times deadlier, like the bubonic plague before there were antibiotics—a scenario that could have derailed modern civilization. It’s easy to see why this feels like ‘a shot across the bow’ rather than a first assault in a string of ever more brutal attacks that we cannot recover from. It’s our chance to surrender unconditionally and accept the mostly benign rule of Terra. Far better than waging a geoengineering guerilla war against Gaia. So there’s value in seeing COVID as a lesson, but that lesson doesn’t conclude with “Don’t get vaccinated,” but with Treat the planet with respect: degrow human economies and populations, stop encroaching on wilderness; rewild the land and sea; rebuild the strained relationship between humanity and the rest of creation; and so on. And get your vaccine so you can healthily pursue all these ends instead of chancing being bedridden for weeks or worse.
Ultimately, as with the Good Samaritan story, we should see getting the vaccine as an expectation of serving Gaia and our fellow human beings. Spreading a deadly disease, intentionally or unintentionally, to family, friends, or even strangers is not Gaian. It is not in support of life, it is not just. Rather, getting the vaccine and ensuring that you are healthy enough to serve Gaia—even more committedly and more passionately than you are now—that is the best path forward.
1. To be fair, the original Utopia was produced in 2013, so it was the remake that had the misfortune of airing during a pandemic. You can watch the second season of the original still (also canceled before it was finished).
2. I could have pointed to other examples. Or simply linked to this Wikipedia page on compulsory sterilizations, which includes abuses from more than 20 countries. So this isn’t just about trust for the US government.
3. A study in February looked at the first month of vaccination in the US and 113 out of 13.8 million recipients died (.000819 percent). Plus, of those that died, the majority were from Long-Term Care Facilities or in Hospice, thus the majority of deaths match expected background rates of mortality. In other words, this is one safe vaccine.
4. Not to mention in planes and out in nature. And yet those are ‘risky’ too, when compared with getting a vaccine. You have a 1 in 206,000 chance of getting into a plane crash and a 1 in 500,000 chance of getting struck by lightning. These are both smaller than vaccination but not by that much, and all are incredibly low risk.
5. I know if I get cancer, this is going to be a challenging issue to grapple with—especially as the ecological toll of cancer treatment is not insignificant. But the ecological toll of a vaccine is quite small, especially when compared to being respirated on a ventilator.
6. I guess the exception to that is if you’ve fully exited from living the dominant human way. Isolated Indigenous people, or rural ecovillagers, or cloistered monks, for example, but even then, COVID doesn’t respect even extreme social distancing. The last male of the Juma peoples in the Brazilian Amazon, Aruká Juma, died last month from COVID. He was also the last fluent speaker of the Juma language.
7. In fact, as Naomi Klein argues, the only thing we should probably expect from a crisis is for the powerful to exploit it for their gain.
8. A friend shared with me a Zambian proverb that supports the same point: “A clean child is a sick child.”
9. Even this is complicated. One could argue that I am not being a Good Samaritan (or good Gaian) by not getting the flu vaccine as I can infect others (including those who may be at higher risk than I). And I might agree if this was a one time vaccine, or had a higher efficacy rate, or even if it didn’t mean annual exposure to toxins. But the combination of all three of these factors makes me hesitate. And this reinforces that nothing is black and white, even perhaps COVID vaccination.