By Primus M. Tazanu
This article pivots around COVID-19 and its vaccine with the main point focusing on a claim by the Christian right that taking a COVID-19 vaccine may prepare your body and soul for an afterlife of eternal damnation. They believe the only way to avert everlasting doom is to refuse the vaccine. This trajectory of the Christian right anti-vaccine campaign further posits that there is a furtive plot by sinister forces behind COVID-19 vaccine to swindle human souls to Satan. Secondly, I state that these anti-vaccine campaigns that have garnered enough traction online and are cautioning the uptake of new inventions, are not new. My last argument cites examples as a way of demonstrating an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory may draw from concrete histories.
I use the term Christian right (CR) advisedly to refer to Christian fundamentalists found predominantly in Pentecostal and charismatic wings of Christianity. In relation to Africa where I draw my examples, several philosophies of the Christian right have overwhelmingly infiltrated and influenced the (Christian) religious views and practices, leading scholars to talk of an African Pentecostalite space. Concerning the present pandemic, how do we address some of these religious views that we now subsume under the general rubric of conspiracy theory? I will first flesh out the deeper meaning surrounding this belief that the vaccine alters the eternal destination of Christians and then, turn to an anthropological reading of how people respond to crises.
As children, we would, out of mischief, pull tricks on our chickens when we wished for free eggs. We touched the chickens’ fresh eggs, hoping that the hen would reject them. After observing for a while, and if we were lucky, the chicken would refuse to incubate the touched eggs. We then informed our parents about the development and they, in turn, told us to collect the rejected eggs. This trick worked only occasionally. Among the Christian right, the narrative surrounding COVID-19 vaccine runs on similar lines: God rejecting His (Christian God is male) children. Why God rejects those inoculated is because, suspects the Christian right, the vaccine transforms these individuals into new humans, unrecognizable by their creator.
Since their bodies (and spirits) have been tampered with the vaccine, those vaccinated in turn have their bodies and spirits align more with malevolent forces; they are in Satan’s camp, so to speak. These unfortunate victims become pawns in the hands of the devil whose sole motive is to deceive, molest and torture. This sounds bleak and ominous, but you only need to turn to the bible to see where such interpretation is coming from, as some Christian rights cautiously associate the vaccine with the apocalyptic 666, the famous mark of the beast mentioned in the Revelation (13:17-18), the last book of the bible. This dreaded section of the Holy Book tells how buying and selling is reserved only to those having the mark of the beast. Push this a little further and you will reach this conclusion: you cannot succeed in conducting any transaction in the world unless you have a COVID-19 vaccine in your body. It sounds like the prophecy in the Revelation. Or does it?
A while ago, I mentioned that the Christian right cautiously associates the vaccine with eschatology for a good reason; linking the vaccine with the end times would denote what some Christians believe as rapture must have taken place. By rapture, they mean God has already sucked up his unpolluted children from the corrupt earth, suggesting being in a situation where you must take the vaccine/666 is already a post-rapture era. This is an interesting twist, a pyrrhic conundrum the CR conspiracy theory finds hard to resolve. No Christian right dare thinks the rapture has occurred. Those familiar with this version of Christianity in Africa would confirm that they always see themselves as the pure, the elect, and chosen children of God. Anyone, including non-fundamentalist Christians, not abiding by their dogma easily falls into the category of the infidel, those the Christian right speculates would not make heaven. To live in a period they interpret as post-apocalyptic is to admit that they share that world with the rejected, those that were left behind after the rapture.
For the Christian right, it is never a matter of doubt if they are the privileged children of God. They arrogate their proximity to God to set standards on what they consider as rightful Christian discourse. This is seen in the ways in which they – consciously or unconsciously – intimidate lukewarm Christians and non-Christians that they (CR) have direct access to God. We only need to turn to social media to understand what I am saying here. These media platforms are awash with countless god-told-me prophecies and Christian right anti-vaccine campaigners habitually draw their energies from the god-told-me narrative to place a curse on the vaccine and the forces behind it. Come to think of the god-told-me doctored and graphic images, the deepfake, the videos, text, and voiceovers that urge Christians to fight back at the evil forces promoting the vaccine technology. This attempt at saving their communities, admittedly, draws on supposedly personal revelations from God. And since the messages are delivered to them personally – usually in dreams – it is convenient for anyone to invoke God to convey divine anti-vaccine missives, presenting the jab as a temptation, as one of the many spiritual objects understandable in these binaries: good/bad, benevolence/malevolence, heaven/hell, God/Satan, pure/polluted, etc. Because satisfactory answers in relation to COVID-19 are sometimes hard to come by, added to the speed at which unverified information circulates online, what the Christian right is doing is simply asking questions and casting doubts in the minds of people. How the coronavirus spreads, whom it kills the most, the speed with which the COVID-19 vaccine was developed, the manufacturers’ concurrent announcement (collusion?) of the vaccine roll-out, the paranoia of the lockdown, further lend a speculative substrate on which their conspiracy theory thrives.
One must admit that Christian right COVID-19 conspiracy theory follows a consistent trend of their suspicions of inventions. For example, even as they are reputed as avid users of new media technologies, the Christian right has, at times, had this struggle to accept technologies from the onset. Not long ago, they suspected personal media identities such the mobile phone numbers, Facebook, and email accounts introduced users to an evil online world. In my research on mediated Pentecostalism, I have heard people testify that Facebook and chat rooms initiated them into a demonic world of promiscuity and unquenchable sexual desires. Perhaps, this is just an addiction to sex, but beaming a Christian ray on their experience lends it a necessary mystical dread, allowing the pastors to intervene as expert exorcists. Anyone watching the Pentecostal scene in Africa quickly realizes that these exorcisms are instantly mediated (and shared) on social media platforms. In fact, take away social media, the smartphone and TV from the pastors and that would, undeniably, be almost the end of their world.
From the online material shared by, and about the pastors, we easily notice that these leaders have developed a personality cult. We get to understand they have the supernatural powers to see, hear, perceive, feel, etc. As mentioned before, we get the impression that they are privy to God’s mind. Challenge CR leaders who associate 5G with COVID-19 and the response you get from some of their followers – inspired by Jesus chiding people who do not see beyond the face value – is that you are blind and incapable of seeing what their pastors see. For many followers, whatever a pastor Christianizes is an incontestable truth. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, an all too familiar scenario has emerged whereby the pastors beef up their relevance by staying in the spotlight, lead conversations, and most of all, exercise influence over their audience. They cannot imagine a world in which they do not speak about events that affect their followers and in doing so, some of them set themselves as experts on everything, even if what they say is premised on falsehood. Again, think of this assertion that 5G network causes COVID-19 or that COVID-19 is a strategy to lockdown places, keep people indoors while authorities embed 5G cables into the earth. Yet again, challenge this assertion and you will be accused of propagating fake news.
Though the conspiracy theory may not have as its main point, the jumbling of what appears to be generally accepted knowledge, it would sound uninformed to completely dismiss some of the grounds on which it draws its doubts. Even if it does not turn out to be true, a conspiracy theory may be based on prior experiences. Take the case of black people. That many of them easily lend ears to treacheries surrounding COVID-19 is not unfounded; historical records exist on how their bodies have been abused in the name of improving medicine and science. A few recollections: remember the Tuskegee untreated syphilis experiment on black men as well as the American gynecological practices whereby black pregnant women’s bodies were abused for the sake of scientific advancement? Or a South African mercenary group – posing as medical practitioners – spreading HIV/AIDS among black South Africans during the apartheid period? For sure, these harrowing histories linger in the memories of black people and their skepticism of COVID-19 vaccine cannot be dismissed as unfounded.
The point I am emphasizing here is that, if black people shun the hospital or do not want to participate in drug clinical trials, it is not because they do not believe in science; they may just be skeptical of the scientists. It is because they read deeper meanings when influential figures like Melinda Gates says (rightly or wrongly) that blacks and people of colour should be among the first folks to get the vaccine. Who does not remember a French doctor suggesting that a repurposed drug used to treat tuberculosis patients could be tried on Africans to see if it works against the coronavirus? Add this rhetoric to the many rumours and misinformation that circulate online and what you observe is an apprehensive black population. For people who have had an uncomfortable encounter with the medical and scientific establishments, rumours that the vaccine sterilizes black people, causes miscarriage in black women, compromises their genes and that it is a eugenics venture to reduce the black population, are terrifying.
Anthropologists have long understood that in times of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, people grapple to make meaning of the world around them by turning to what they know and for the Christian right, the bible is a perfect repository from where they draw valuable coping instructions. What the Christian right leaders are doing is Christianize our understanding of this pandemic, grounding it within a framework of skepticism and by so doing, maintain a certain degree of social integration among their followers. Emile Durkheim, an early 20th-century French sociologist would probably agree to this. Similarly, Victor Turner would see the pastors’ conspiracy narrative surrounding COVID-19 as an attempt by these church leaders to manage social change and restore social order in an apparently chaotic situation.
How people check the boxes on what COVID-19 (and its vaccine) is, how it came about, the direction it is leading the world to, etc., are primarily animated by their interpretations of the diseases. Most of the conspiracy theories simply hypothesize the virus is not necessarily a health crisis. And what we realize is that those propagating these theories do all they can to emotionalize their audience, making it hard at times to engage them in non-emotional conversations. Imagine debating a shouter who steadfastly believes the vaccine alters people’s spiritual makeup or that it spreads through 5G network! What underlies most of these conspiracies is rebellion steeped in profound mistrust. For the Christian right, resisting the vaccine is the surest way of keeping the human being untainted and therefore, recognizable by the creator. It would be interesting if similar narratives emerge in relation to other vaccines and drugs. For how long some of them – staunch anti-vaxxers – will resist COVID-19 vaccine is all a matter of speculation.
*Dr Primus M. Tazanu is an anthropologist and Senior Guest Researcher at the Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. His research focuses on social practices and the production of meanings through media technologies: new/social media and sociality/governance, media and Pentecostalism as well as media and racism.