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Anti-COVID measures: the pandemic marks an end to individualism


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Agnès Pinard Legry - published on 05/17/21

As the vaccination campaign accelerates in France, Fr. Laurent Stalla-Bourdillon, director of the Service for Information Professionals of the Diocese of Paris and teacher at the Collège des Bernardins, talks to Aleteia about the position of the Church concerning the major health issues of the moment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has crossed a new threshold in recent weeks with more than 150 million people infected and more than 3.1 million resulting deaths since the virus emerged in late 2019. In this light, countries are refining their vaccination strategies, allowing more and younger people to be vaccinated and, in some cases, proposing some form of a “vaccine passport.”

These are sensitive subjects and it’s legitimate to debate them. “This crisis has exacerbated the divisive ‘for’ or ‘against’ positions. We’ve never had so much need for certainty,” said Fr. Laurent Stalla-Bourdillon, director of the Service for Information Professionals of the Diocese of Paris and a teacher at the Collège des Bernardins. “But in such a context of uncertainty, militancy easily prevails over competence,” he told Aleteia. Below we share more of the interview.

Aleteia: What is the meaning of the debate regarding the ambiguous ethical nature of vaccines against Covid-19?

Fr. Laurent Stalla-Bourdillon: We mean that “the end doesn’t justify the means.” While it’s absolutely necessary to develop treatments to cure sick people and vaccines to prevent them getting sick in the first place, it’s also important to know the circumstances involved in the creation of these treatments. This is where the ethical question comes in. Vaccines, yes! But at what cost?

It goes without saying that if people had to be used as “guinea pigs” to evaluate the efficacy of vaccines, it would be legitimate to ask whether their lives are worth sacrificing, even to achieve a vaccine. Vaccine development processes are so complex that the general public is largely unaware of the experiments and materials required to develop them.

Fetal cells are often used in medical research. The Holy See has been careful to point out that “when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available (…) it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” There are many different types of vaccines available today, and we may not have seen the last of them.

Faced with this diversity, it’s not uncommon for people to want to choose for themselves in accordance with their conscience. Between dogmatic certainties and radical uncertainties, we’re faced with the dilemma of a responsibility that must intimately combine personal choice and the common good. Therefore, what principles govern our common life?

What can we say to those who are reluctant to be vaccinated?

According to a survey conducted last year by the World Economic Forum and Ipsos among nearly 20,000 adults in 27 countries, 74% of those questioned said they intended to be vaccinated… [1] According to expert estimates, between 60 and 70% of the world’s population (4.6 to 5.4 billion people) should be vaccinated in order to halt the pandemic.

This crisis has exacerbated the divisiveness of “for” and “against” positions. We have never had such a need for certainty. But in such a context of uncertainty, militancy easily prevails over competence. Resistance to vaccination is sometimes very strong and based on very different reasons. It can be rooted in concern regarding the moral licitude of the use of vaccines due to the way they are produced, as we have mentioned above. It can also depend on the low efficiency and side effects of a vaccine, or from projections or fantasies about possible risks.

The economic stakes are such that an economic war has also been triggered in the pandemic. Social networks are unparalleled in their ability to increase unrest and disbelief. Humanity is clearly facing challenges to its unity.

The extreme uncertainty in which political leaders and scientists find themselves as to the outcome of the pandemic is reflected in public opinion, which is holding back. While it’s certain that we’re in a totally unprecedented situation with regard to the speed of vaccine production and the speed of mass vaccination, the fact remains that all the vaccines developed have the undeniable objective of immunizing against the most serious forms of the disease.

The confusion regarding side effects should not obscure the immense progress that vaccination represents. The Holy See recalled in its December 2020 note that:

Those who … for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.

We are called to exercise “foresight to discern what is important” (Phil 1:9-10) and resist resigned pessimism.

Regarding universal access to vaccines… Is this a necessity? What does the Church say?

Ethical reflection, as the French National Consultative Ethics Committee reminds us:

…must respect the principles that underlie medical ethics and the fundamental rights of all persons, in particular equality, equity, respect for the principles of autonomy and consent, benevolence and non-harmfulness, the relationship between collective benefit and individual risk, and justice in determining the conditions of access.” [2]

The pandemic marks an end to individualism. It has the effect of revealing our interdependence and making us all stand in solidarity with one another. No country can ignore the health situation of its neighbors.

We see this today with the dramatic situation in India. Collaboration and sharing will be the keys to ending the epidemic. We’re faced with the urgency of what Pope Francis calls social friendship in his latest encyclical Fratelli tutti.

In conditions like these, it’s likely that some people will seek to take advantage of the situation. But then, some will always be better off and others always poorer. The pandemic is also a test of the responsibility of the leaders of nations to work together. How aware are we of the unity of the human family? What an immense challenge!

According to the Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith:

There is also a moral imperative for the pharmaceutical industry, governments and international organizations to ensure that vaccines, which are effective and safe from a medical point of view, as well as ethically acceptable, are also accessible to the poorest countries in a manner that is not costly for them. The lack of access to vaccines, otherwise, would become another sign of discrimination and injustice that condemns poor countries to continue living in health, economic and social poverty [3].

What role should the Church and Catholics play regarding the sick?

It seems to me that while the pandemic has turned our lives upside down, the essence of life hasn’t changed: it’s still about living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and understanding the love with which God loves us, loving our neighbor, and preparing ourselves to meet God. 

No one remains in this world, for it’s not a world where we remain forever but a world from which we pass on. This life remains a “Passover” regardless of the historical events we encounter. Life is essentially a becoming. We are not living people going towards death, but dying people going towards life!

Christians are the guardians of a hope that will not be disappointed. Death, which used to be kept at a distance, has made its return as if by break into our societies. So many people have lost relatives or friends under dramatic circumstances! The sorrow is doubled by the unspeakable pain of not having been able to be present at the hour of death, of not having been able to say goodbye.

Society is sorely lacking a meaningful discourse about death. Who, if not Christians, can restore peace to these souls? Our trust in the Lord is a good thing for all; His word is a source of peace: “I will instruct you, show you the way, advise you, watch over you” (Ps 31:8).

The pandemic has also created situations of extreme precariousness and has put many people in difficulty. The first responsibility of Christians remains to be close to all those who are suffering materially, but also psychologically and emotionally. Only new expressions of solidarity will allow the society not to disintegrate. It’s up to Christians to bring this about.

More than ever, love is announced by loving, and the tenderness of God is expressed through selfless attention and generous sharing. The Church will undoubtedly have to be more present, so that no one can say, “Where were you when we were going through this trial?”

[1] The countries which reported the highest percentage of people intending to be vaccinated were China (97%), Brazil (88%), Australia (88%), and India (87%). The countries with the lowest numbers were Russia (54%), Poland (56%), and France (59%). Three in four adults globally say they would get a vaccine for COVID-19

[2] Enjeux éthiques d’une politique vaccinale contre le Sars-CoV-2 | Comité Consultatif National d’Ethique

[3] Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines

CoronavirusInformation about the vaccine against COVID-19
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