To take or not to take a (covid-19) vaccine, that is (not) the question?!

To take or not to take a (covid-19) vaccine? Is that the real question to ask ourselves? I am not sure.

These days I am staying at Sarah College in India. Staff and students are confined to the space of the college for many months. Only when really necessary is one allowed to go outside and is required to enter quarantine upon return. Given the fact that I am young, generally in good health, do not need to travel and neither do I have a job that involves interactions with many people, my way of thinking was to let more vulnerable recipients go ahead of me with getting a vaccine. As a consequence, the question about taking a vaccine or not was not something I considered deeply. Till recently.

Sarah College announced that vaccinations would be available on-site and everyone was asked to register through the app developed by the Indian government and at the office of the College if one wanted to be vaccinated. Now, I was confronted with the question: to take or not to take the vaccine? Yet, once I started to consider my response, I realised this is perhaps not the question to ask ourselves. 

All over the world the spread of the Covid-19 virus has caused deep rifts within families, communities, and tensions in the world at large. The wife of one of my brothers shared the news that some people in my country of citizenship, the Netherlands, acted violently and vandalized the train station of their city. Restrictions or lockdowns have sparked uproar and demonstrations. And the initiatives to vaccinate people have led to heated political debates all over the world, countless opinion articles in newspapers and all kinds of theories shared on social media about the pandemic, restrictions, the virus, and vaccines.

I started to ask my family and friends about their thoughts & feelings regarding taking a covid-19 vaccine or not. I listened to what people were saying at Sarah College about the vaccinations. I read articles from scientists, scientific institutions, bodies of government and articles by journalists relating to vaccines and in particular those who (strongly) oppose restrictions, lockdowns and vaccinations. 

What follows is not about my findings or pointing out the various views and arguments of others. If one were to ask me what I think and feel about particular policies, behaviour of groups or individuals, the Covid-19 virus and vaccination, I would simply answer that I can see arguments from different perspectives and am not sure myself. The impression based on gathering different perspectives and careful contemplation became the foundation of deciding whether to be vaccinated or not. What I briefly want to point out here is that if we ask questions like ‘Shall I take or not take the vaccine?’ or ‘Should everyone be vaccinated?’, they might very well be the wrong question.

When I hear or read about people having doubts about vaccinations, in particular a vaccine developed to protect against Covid-19, or when they feel somehow harmed by the current situation and feel compelled to voice their opinion publicly, it seems ultimately, it is not simply about taking or not taking a vaccine. It’s about other underlying issues. That is, if we see clearly what kind of other questions the issue of vaccination relates to, the answer to vaccinate or not might come about more naturally. And we might be able to collectively take action for the benefit of everyone including our selves.

It’s about science
Some people doubt whether the virus is actually real and exists, yet most seem to accept that there is a virus that can be really harmful to one’s health and deathly to more than just a few people. For some, the virus is indeed real, but they are skeptical of the reported science on the virus and vaccines.

If people expect science to establish an unchanging definitive truth, then they will not trust information based on scientific research since we know that science is always evolving along with new discoveries. We will need to allow for doubts and focus on probability. So, here the questions seems to be: how do we ensure research is reliable such that we can respond effectively during swiftly moving situations like a pandemic?

It’s about politics
Whether one has a general trust in scientific research or not, in both cases people might have reasons to mistrust the policies and information provided by their government, and the words of politicians. In that case, the vaccination issue revolves more around politics. 

Some people feel pain & suffering from imposed restrictions or lockdowns. Likewise, some feel their politicians have failed in various ways in response to the pandemic. Others express that government lacks transparency. Note that none of these outlooks have to do with the reality of the pandemic, the severity of the Covid-19 virus and the quality of vaccines. Anyway, the question here seems to be: how can we fight a pandemic at the level of politics, given that people will have different views? 

It’s about information
The sources of information we actively seek out will invariably affect our outlook or our position on an any issue. When people are skeptical of the information provided by the government, for instance, they look to other sources like newspapers and magazines, tv and radio talk shows, and social media to develop a view on the matter.

It’s easy to observe that all possible views can be found ‘out there’. On one end, there are those who believe we should only rely on statistics and scientific data to determine which methods are effective in preventing people from becoming ill. On the other end, there are those who claim the pandemic is a hoax and those who believe that China intentionally created the virus to harm other countries. The question here, quite simply, is: which sources of information can reliably inform us to help a pandemic like this one to subside? 

It’s about freedom
Imposed restrictions bring about a sense of loss of freedom on many levels. People may feel that their ability to move about and go where they choose has been hampered, and if they are allowed limited re-engagement into the community, they feel the burden to follow protocols such as hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing. This goes beyond feeling the sadness of isolation from socializing and community. These limitations can bring about resentment towards authority and can quickly develop into hostility.

The reduction or loss of income can also impact the freedom to afford leisure events or acquire consumer products beyond the basic necessities. For many, consumable joys and pleasures, like celebrations and sporting events, are what people use to measure the quality of their lives and general happiness. 

Then there is the more ideological loss of freedom which often takes shape in the form of restrictions on outdoor protests or in some countries, suppression of both free speech and media. This angst is pervasive and is felt in a very real way as shown by the unrest since restrictions began being implemented.  

The emotions related to the loss of freedom (both perceived and actual) are understandable and show us how much we cherish our freedom. Yet, the ways in which we defend and uphold our cherished freedom during a pandemic can cause the virus to continue and thus, hurt the very people who are actively trying to protect our freedom. It seems, here, we need to ask ourselves: What is freedom really and how can we both protect freedom and stop a pandemic from causing pain, suffering and death?

It’s about well-being
Statistics show that restrictions can also increase the rate of domestic adult and child violence, can negatively impact the quality of education, bring about isolation, loneliness, and depression, increase substance abuse and worsen medical health. Furthermore, restrictions hurt some more than others depending on one’s age, gender, education, socio-economic status and so on. 

These factors challenge governing agencies on a local, national, and international level when deciding on whether or not to impose restrictions or come into play when considering to what extent restrictions should be imposed. Even more so when a situation is not yet present or not (directly) felt by many. 

Our susceptibly to contracting a virus like Covid-19 is not the only factor to weigh when considering whether or not to get vaccinated. The above-mentioned factors all contribute to our overall well-being which is determined by safety, our education, and our mental and emotional health. So, the question here becomes: In preventing the spread of the Covid-19, how do we weigh the various factors that influence our well-being together with imposing restrictions?

It’s about our mind
All the restrictions and preventative measures taken to curb the spread of the virus clearly impacts our life circumstances. Going for a walk, eating at a restaurant with friends, doing our job, visiting a supermarket, enjoying a sports match at the stadium or pub, taking the train or bus, flying to another place on this planet, are all activities that are suddenly either no longer possible or come with rules, regulations and an sense of cautiousness. 

Yet, apart from the ‘external’ circumstances that clearly affect our life and well-being, it is easy to overlook what is even more fundamental – our mind. Why is it that some prove to be very resilient, patient, and are even able to a take a challenging time as an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth while others struggle, feel distressed, and become depressed or very angry?

For many around the world, we may not be able to improve our ‘external’ circumstances like living conditions, the need for income, basic necessaries, transportation, childcare and so on.  However, regardless of whether one’s ‘external’ circumstances are supportive or not, the fundamental condition for our inner well-being is (the ability to work with) our own mind. Since our physical actions and speech seem to depend on our mind, the mind is also key to behaving and communicating wisely in response to challenging times.

It is especially important to reason carefully. Our reasoning is easily influenced by our emotions and biases. For those who suffered sickness personally or directly experienced the loss of a loved one from the virus will likely have differing views from those who develop opinions based on indirect information or from those who live in a relatively comfortable environment free of hardship. Therefore, when we consider questions like those mentioned here, we need to look very careful and ask ourselves if we are using clear reasoning or if instead, we have allowed our emotions and biases somehow to dominate and lead us to wrong thinking. 

How we use our mind impacts our everyday experience, particularly during the pandemic, and it determines how well we respond to hardships. This truth applies to the experience of each individual as well as at the level of a community (small, like a village, or large, like a city or region), nationally and globally. The question here then seems to be: How to work with our mind in such a way that we can maintain a healthy sense of well-being and act & speak in a way that either contributes positively to the well-being of others or at the very least, that doesn’t cause harm to them?

Most of all, it is about compassion
There is at least one thing that seems to be clear, independent of one’s views regarding all the earlier points above, is that for a virus like Covid-19 every human being is equal. No matter who we are, we can all equally become infected and / or the infection spreader. Whether you live in a large capital or in the remotest of areas, there is no exception. 

It seems also clear that we are all equal in another sense: no one wishes to become sick at any point in time and likewise does not want to become infected with this Covid-19 virus in particular. In a more general way: no one wishes to suffer. In fact, all of us wish to have this sense of well-being, happiness, and joy in life, right?

Often times, when we suffer, our reaction is to resolve what appears to be the external causes of our suffering. In seeking some kind of protection or refuge we focus all of our energy into finding ways to defend or restore those circumstances ‘outside’. Any view that supports this approach is easily adopted and seems true for all of us, regardless of where we stand in relationship to science, politics, journalism and so on. 

When this happens, we easily forget the basic sense of equality. The sameness of being human. All equally vulnerable. Equally precious. All equally not wishing to suffer and having the right to happiness. If we don’t recollect our sameness, opposition and conflict will arise quickly when encountering people with different views.

Some start yelling at those who wear a mask, while others scold those who do not. Some demonstrate against restrictions while others become angry or upset because they feel these demonstrators are making a bad situation worse. Likewise, some insist that everyone be vaccinated as soon as possible, while others strongly oppose vaccinations which brings us back to our original question – to take or not to take the Covid-19 vaccine.

Underlying this seeming simple question are much more complex issues as I have briefly touched upon here. When we examine the big picture, what once appeared to be a constricted and contentious two-sided issue, now becomes a broader, less noisy, and less divisive one. In this way, we can make more informed decisions not only to help ourselves and our loved ones, but also to benefit us all. 

If you feel everyone should take the vaccine and experience an aversion to those who refuse to do so and whom might voice their opposition, it can help to take a step back for a moment and ask yourself – how can I include them in such a way that we get this pandemic to subside and also act in their benefit? If you don’t want to be vaccinated for whatever reason and perhaps feel the urge to voice your concerns then, in a similar way, you can take a mindful gap and ask yourself – how can I put the pain and suffering due to this virus to an end and make sure the well-being and happiness of everyone is taken into account?

While I am aware that there are those who share a balanced view, it is still striking to observe how quickly polarizing sides drop what they share in common – that they deeply care for the well-being and happiness for themselves, their loved ones, for their neighbours, their fellow citizens and indeed for everyone around the world.

If we can connect at that level, if we can see our basic human sameness in not wishing to suffer and wanting to seek happiness, the question of taking a vaccine or not suddenly takes on a completely different dimension and becomes less of the focus. The question then becomes how we help the pandemic to subside, prevent unnecessary pain and suffering, and support the well-being and happiness of every individual life. How do we accomplish that? That is the real question!  

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