Vaccines and human community
Today I received my first dose of the Pzizer COVID-19 vaccine. I want to write about this moment for those who follow me on this platform to share what I know and believe to be true, because truth has become so fraught in this moment in our country’s long and complex history.
When I went to Chinese Medicine school, I learned that vaccines were safe and effective. I learned this from immunologists and naturopaths. There was spirited discussion about how safe and how effective, and room was made for the notion that, though they are very safe and very effective, they could possibly be even more so with different scheduling and spacing of doses in children. I respect people’s right to parent as they see fit, and to pursue increased safety if it is to be had. But I worry that those moments of concession, that yes they could be even more safe, left people with the wrong impression: that there was in fact some doubt.
This doubt seeps through our culture and subculture, in the united states and in natural and alternative medicine. I see this more as a problem of sociology than as one with the science of our medicine; if you are wiling to question certain orthodoxies then you are willing to question others. If you say to yourself “maybe there is a better way to treat chronic illness” then you may also say “what else are the pharmaceutical companies not telling us?”
This is understandable. There is an undeniable dark side to the history of medicine in the US. Beyond that, skepticism has its own allure, the sense that we cannot and should not rely on anyone’s reasoning beyond our own and that of those closest to us. In a certain way, the American creed of rugged individualism, descended from the minds of those settlers who stole land and country out from under their neighbor’s feet, predisposes us to this, especially if we are white. It’s tempting to believe that we can reason through everything ourselves, that we don’t need to rely on anyone else’s knowledge. But the simple truth is that we do.
I’m not an immunologist, nor am I someone who studies vaccines. Statistically speaking, neither are you. I need to trust that those who do such work do it with good intentions and not as a part of any grand conspiracy to hurt or harm. I need to trust that, not just because I need to get a vaccine to protect me from a deadly virus, but for a deeper reason: because we have to rely on each other as human beings.
I am not a climate scientist, but I need to trust the experts when they say that we have only a few years left to prevent the worst effects of a warming planet.
I am not a political scientist, but I need to believe the professors when they tell me that authoritarianism breeds conspiracy theories, and is fueled by perpetuating a world where no one can say for sure what the truth is.
Hell, I’m not a car mechanic, but I need to trust that my mechanic is fixing my car because I need it to get to work.
Society cannot function in the absence of trust, because no one can know everything. We need each other, and we need to each be trusted to experts in our chosen areas of study, whatever they may be.
That is not to say that we should never be skeptical, that we should never check people’s sources or get a second opinion. I don’t want to return to the days when Americans were instructed to treat doctors like gods who could never be questioned. Such a paradigm created incredible risk of abuse, and was abandoned for good reason.
What is needed, instead, is nuance; the knowledge that the truth is usually complicated, and that there are rarely simple explanations for complex phenomena. It can both be the case that there is a deep history of medical experimentation on people of color, disabled people and immigrants, and that most people involved in the development of vaccines are doing it for the right reasons. It can both be the case that our healthcare system is often unjust and rife with institutions that reinforce existing hierarchies, and that people are currently making a courageous effort to distribute a life-saving medicine to as many people as humanly possible and in as just a way as possible. There will almost certainly be failures in that, but those failures will not erase the successes; they will simply coexist in this complicated world of ours.
I got the COVID-19 vaccine, as I do the flu shot every year, because I trust that most people are trying to do good most of the time. The natural medicine community needs to do a better job of holding each other accountable to the truth about vaccines, and not nurturing dangerous conspiracy theories. Watch one YouTube video about vaccine denial and you’ll be routed into Qanon nonsense, sovereign citizen quackery and flat-earth theories. They don’t have much in common beyond this: the deep sense that somehow the world is controlled by a shadowy group of elites (almost always revealed to be “The Jews”), and that only “we” can know the real truth, by secret means.
But the real truth isn’t hidden, nor is it a secret. It’s all around us, and we need only to keep our wits about us to perceive it. If we are able to stay grounded in the truth can defeat COVID-19, we can defeat modern authoritarianism, and we can keep our planet fit for human and non-human habitation. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
-Rowan Everard LAc