Only 1.7% of Papua New Guinea have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This has been of concern to the international community, which is observing the spread of the virus through an exposed population with high rates of co-morbidities and minimal access to health care.
The mood in the country, however, is very different. Without a doubt, the fear is abundant, but this one has focused on the vaccine itself.
Many Papua New Guinea have access to the vaccine, even in some of the most remote corners of the country. They are also well versed in injected drugs and vaccinations against diseases such as polio and measles.
But millions of Papua New Guinea are not getting the COVID vaccine because they are terrified of this specific vaccine. It is not a question of a “vaccine hesitation”, but of an opposition in its own right, of a real antipathy.
Community vaccine deployments have been the target of death threats, attacked by angry crowds and castigated as a “campaign of terror”.
The recently introduced “no jab, no job” policy, meanwhile, has been met with lawsuits, massive resignations and the fraudulent acquisition of vaccination certificates to bypass the dreaded vaccine.
So why is there such fierce resistance to the COVID vaccine? The main difference, as any good anthropologist will tell you, is the cultural context.
Any attempt to understand local views on the COVID vaccine must first understand that, in Melanesian societies, physicality is intimately linked with morality and spirituality. For this reason, biomedical explanations for the disease are usually secondary to other causes or irrelevant.
This is mainly due to the limited, if any, role that government education plays in the lives of most Papua New Guinea, especially the roughly 80% who live in rural villages.
For example, if an otherwise healthy person suddenly becomes ill and dies, witchcraft or witchcraft may be considered the cause. The accusations are linked to interpersonal conflicts and jealousies that may have precipitated the mystical assault.
Such interpretations usually occur with individual woes – not much larger events like a global pandemic. This is where Christianity becomes extremely important, making sense of broader issues like this.
The role of Christianity
Almost all of Papua New Guinea (99.2%) are Christians. And the country’s religious landscape is heavily influenced by Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.
In PNG, Christianity offers not only the promise of eternal salvation, but also Bible-inscribed frames and prophetic ideas that inform the way people live and see the world around them.
Many Christians, especially those who believe in Pentecostal and Evangelical traditions, have a keen interest in the end of the world because it signals the return of Jesus Christ.
Basically, the imminent return of Christ is heralded by the rapid moral decline of the world and humanity being marked with the mark of the beast – a process commissioned by Satan. As such, many Christians in Papua New Guinea continually and fearfully scan the horizon for this definitive sign.
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Years ago some friends in Papua New Guinea said barcodes were the hallmark. More recently, they have insisted that this was the government’s national identity card initiative. Now, in a completely different order of magnitude and intensity, this is the COVID vaccine.
As a group protesting against a vaccine campaign recently chanted, “Karim 666 chip goh! Or “Get out of here with Satan’s microchip.”
From this perspective, the vaccine is a vehicle for much larger forces of global and cosmic tyranny. The speed with which the vaccine was developed, its global reach, and the apparent coercion of vaccine mandates further heighten suspicion about its evil origins.
However, Christianity is not the only factor that stimulates anti-vaccination sentiment. Indeed, powerful misinformation on social media has also had an influence, such as rumors that the vaccine has a microchip or usually causes death. People also have a well-founded distrust of foreigners, and they view both the virus and the vaccine as foreign assaults on PNG sovereignty.
In the absence of Western biomedical knowledge or a lack of confidence in its validity, these theories flourish. Those who have a stronger exposure to Western culture often try in vain to convince their compatriots against this kind of thinking.
While defiantly resisting vaccination, many Papua New Guinea nonetheless recognize that COVID-19 is real and that it causes disease.
With infection rates, hospital admissions and deaths on the rise, it would be hard to ignore this reality. Rising mortality from COVID-19 across the country has prompted some to receive the vaccine, but even those open to vaccination are easily frightened by rumors of subsequent deaths.
In the absence of vaccination, Papua New Guinea turned to three main methods of treatment: prayer and healing, biological remedies, and the use of strong natural immunity against disease.
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As Christians strongly influenced by evangelical and Pentecostal traditions, many people pray to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to not only alleviate, but annihilate, bad disease.
Additionally, many are turning to traditional organic remedies to ward off the disease. These are mainly spices and leaves used in drinks and steaming.
Finally, there is a firmly held belief that Papua New Guinea has an inherently strong immune system, boosted by a diet of garden foods, which makes them more resistant to the incursion of the COVID virus.
What can the authorities do?
For most westerners, vaccines are an obvious and intrinsic good. For many Papua New Guinea, vaccines are a dangerous, unknown and grim threat. This is due to a combination of forces – government neglect, strong religiosity, and justified distrust of foreigners.
This local position must be understood and respected with great sensitivity, and not rejected or criticized.
At the same time, deaths must be avoided and the thick fog of opposition that surrounds the vaccine must be dispelled. But how?
Detailed information about the vaccine, including its creation, content, effectiveness, and potential side effects, should be made known to people before asking them to be vaccinated. Insisting that a population with a minimum of information be vaccinated is neither ethical nor fair.
Likely in response to widespread apocalyptic interpretations of the vaccine, the PNG Council of Churches is now actively promoting its safety and benefits. The government must also step up efforts and embark on a nationwide education campaign if hopes of substantial immunization coverage are to be realized.
The success of the entire venture – and keeping Papua New Guinea away from a public health catastrophe – is likely to come down to persuading ordinary people that the vaccine is a divine blessing, not a satanic curse.
Read more: The Pacific went a year without COVID. Now everything is threatened