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COVID-19: Exploring Faith Dimensions
The Ethics of COVID: Vaccines, Mortality, and Morality

The race to combat coronavirus may be moving into a different gear with the new year, with new hopes and evidence of new energy and commitments from various quarters.
For many, new hopes come heartbreakingly too late and religious communities are affected along with the rest of the population, especially those living in congregate housing. Older residents at places like convents and nursing homes are particularly vulnerable to the virus’s devastation; on January 3 the New York Times reported a coronavirus outbreak at the St. Joseph’s Provincial House in Latham, New York, the headquarters of the Albany Province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The outbreak has infected nearly half of its roughly 100 residents. Nine sisters died of the virus in December, joining the at least 106,000 coronavirus deaths that have been reported among residents and employees of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults across the United States. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research also recently released a report that assesses mortality among Jews around the world during the COVID-19 crisis, drawing on data from a wide variety of sources to understand the extent to which Jews specifically were affected (sometimes disproportionately) by coronavirus in different parts of the world during the first wave of the pandemic in March to May 2020. They suggest that the spread of the virus among Jews “may have been enhanced by intense social contact,” but also caution that without accurate quantification, this explanation for elevated mortality in certain places remains unproven.
Meanwhile, the rollout of vaccines has caused many to speak out about the ethics of distribution. A Human Rights Watch report examines key elements of a human rights-based approach to COVID-19 vaccines funding, highlighting principles of transparency and accountability. The report argues that governments spending public money on COVID-19 vaccines should take all possible measures within their power to ensure that the scientific benefits of the research they fund are shared as widely as possible. Jonathan Quick makes the argument from a religious perspective in the Christian Journal for Global Health, using the principles of cura personalis and cura communitas to urge Christians to “support global and national commitments to action that ensures both equity of access to vaccines and widespread acceptance of vaccination.” The Vatican COVID-19 Commission and the Pontifical Academy for Life recently issued a 20-point joint paper that discusses priorities that should be adhered to at the various stages of the vaccine’s journey from development to distribution. Echoing Pope Francis’ recent Urbi et Orbi Christmas message, it calls on world leaders to resist the temptation to participate in “vaccine nationalism,” urging nations and companies to cooperate – not compete – with each other. Religions for Peace’s World Council (representing institutions and communities of a diverse body of religious and faith traditions from all corners of the world) also issued a statement in December, calling for “unprecedented global cooperation, to distribute vaccines to all people of the world, free of charge.”
Some faith leaders are, nonetheless, still hesitant about the vaccine, and vaccine hesitancy is a central issue looking ahead, where religious actors can play decisive roles. For example, some Black pastors have doubts: one commented that “we’re concerned about it being tested on persons of color.” Other religious leaders have raised concerns about the use of fetal cell lines in the manufacturing of some of the vaccines. “I can’t in good faith tell my people to accept this wholesale, but I also am not trying to support any type of baseless conspiracy theories. It’s a tightrope that I have to walk here,” said Earle Fisher, pastor at Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, a small church in Memphis, Tennessee. 
Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a devout Christian himself, has been meeting with religious leaders to help get them the facts they need to promote accurate information about the vaccination to their congregations. Many faith leaders have been at the forefront of promoting the vaccine. The World Council of Churches and the World Jewish Congress have called on faith leaders to use their voices to combat myths spread by anti-vaccination groups about the COVID vaccine, some of which are closely linked to anti-Semitism, and to urge community leaders to be vaccinated in front of media as a way of building trust in the vaccines. The Vatican and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have also come out in favor of the vaccine, despite potential theological and moral qualms about the use of fetal cell lines, stating that “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience.” Hospital chaplains expressed strong emotions at being among the first to receive the vaccine in December. Rev. Andy Karlson, a Unitarian Universalist chaplain for St. Mary’s hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, says: “I was trying to play it cool, but I could feel the gravity, the weight of the pandemic. We’re having a 9/11 of deaths every day. We’ve had to remap the structure of our whole society. We’re facing this exacerbated wealth gap — communities of color and people on the margins are being hit incredibly hard by this. Feeling that, as I was taking off my sweater and rolling up my sleeves … it was heavy, and hopeful.”

Finally, faith-inspired organizations are struggling to keep up their normal operations, according to reports from the Washington Post and Religion News Service. Nonprofits have had to pivot this year to make up for major losses in giving in person. For example, the Salvation Army, one of the largest charities in the United States, was preparing for an up to 50 percent drop in donations to its ubiquitous Red Kettle campaign during the month of December. Other organizations saw an increase in giving, but also a significant increase in needs. “There are families that a year ago could find a way to make ends meet and now they come to us for food,” said Augusto D’Angelo, the coordinator for homeless services for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization deeply involved with providing various social services. Many groups are using the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink their strategies in order to continue helping the world’s vulnerable, driven by their faith and religious obligations for such service.
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