Only 1.7% of Papua New Guineans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This has been a cause of concern to the international community, which is seeing the virus spread through an exposed population with high rates of co-morbidity and minimal access to health care.
However, the mood within the country is very different. There is no doubt that there is a lot of fear, but it is focused on the vaccine itself.
Many Papua New Guineans have access to the vaccine even in some remote corners of the country. They are also fully familiar with injectable drugs and vaccinations against diseases like polio and measles.
But millions of Papua New Guineans are not getting vaccinated against COVID because they fear this specific vaccine. This is not “vaccine hesitation”, but outright protest, a real protest.
The community vaccine rollout has been targeted with death threats, attacked by furious mobs, and instigated as a “campaign of terror”.
The recently introduced “no jab, no job” policy, meanwhile, has been met with lawsuits, mass resignations and fraudulent acquisitions of vaccination certificates to circumvent 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 a COVID vaccine must first appreciate that within Melanesian societies, materiality is closely linked to morality and spirituality. Because of this, biomedical explanations for the disease are usually other causes or irrelevant.
This is mainly due to the small, sometimes non-existent role played by government education in the lives of most Papua New Guineans, especially the approximately 80% who live in rural villages.
For example, if a healthy person suddenly becomes ill and dies, then witchcraft or witchcraft can be considered the cause. The accusations stem from interpersonal conflicts and jealousy that may have triggered the mysterious attack.
Such interpretations are usually accompanied by personal misfortune – not major events like a global pandemic. This is where Christianity becomes extremely important for understanding such broader problems.
role of christianity
Almost all Papua New Guineans (99.2%) are Christians. And the religious landscape in the country is powerfully influenced by Pentecostal and evangelical churches.
In PNG, Christianity offers not only the promise of eternal salvation, but biblical form inscribed structures and prophetic ideas that describe how people live and view the world around them.
Many Christians, especially believers in Pentecostal and evangelical traditions, have a strong interest in the end of the world, as it marks the return of Jesus Christ.
Importantly, the imminent return of Christ is the rapid moral collapse of the world and humanity being branded with the mark of the beast – a process mandated by Satan. As such, many Papua New Guinean Christians scan the horizon incessantly and fearfully for this sure sign.
Read more: No, the COVID-19 vaccine is not tied to animal traces – but a first-century Roman dictator probably is
Years ago, some friends from Papua New Guinea declared the barcode. Recently, he insisted that it was the national ID card initiative of the government. Now, in an entirely different order of magnitude and intensity, it is the COVID vaccine.
As a group protesting a recent vaccine campaign raised the slogan “Karim 666 Chip Goh!”, or “Get out of here with the devil’s microchip”.
From this perspective, the vaccine is a vehicle for the much greater forces of cosmic and cosmic tyranny. The speed with which the vaccine was developed, its global reach, and the apparent coercion of the vaccine further strengthened suspicions of its bad origins.
However, Christianity is not the only factor fueling anti-vaccination sentiment. In fact, powerful misinformation has also been influential on social media, such as rumors that vaccines contain microchips or generally cause death. People also have a well-founded mistrust of outsiders, and they view both the virus and the vaccine as a foreign attack on PNG’s sovereignty.
In the absence of Western biomedical knowledge or a lack of belief in its validity, these theories flourish. People with more frequent exposure to Western culture often try in vain to convince their compatriots against this kind of thinking.
Strongly opposed to vaccination, many Papua New Guineans still accept that COVID-19 is real and that it causes disease.
With infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths rising, it will be hard to ignore this reality. Rising COVID-19 mortality rates across the country have scared some people into getting the vaccine, but even those open to vaccination are easily scared off by rumors of a subsequent death.
In the absence of vaccination, Papua New Guinea has turned to three main methods of treatment: prayer and healing, biological healing, and reliance on a claimed strong natural immunity to disease.
Read more: PNG and Fiji were both facing COVID devastation. Why has the rollout of one vaccine increased and the other stalled?
As Christians are heavily influenced by evangelical and Pentecostal traditions, many people pray to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to not only reduce, but eradicate evil.
In addition, many people are turning to organic conventional treatments to stave off disease. It consists mainly of spices and leaves that are used in drinks and steam.
Finally, there is a strong belief that Papua New Guineans have an intrinsically strong immune system, reinforced by a diet of garden food, which makes them more resistant to the invasion of the COVID virus.
What can officers do?
For most Westerners, vaccines are an obvious and intrinsic good. For many people in Papua New Guinea, vaccines are a dangerous, unknown and frightening threat. This is due to a combination of forces – government neglect, strong religiosity, and justified distrust of outsiders.
This local situation needs to be understood and respected in a very sensitive manner, not dismissed or criticized.
At the same time, deaths should be stopped and the thick fog of protest against the vaccine should be cleared. but how?
Detailed information about the vaccine, including its formulation, ingredients, efficacy and potential side effects, should be made fully aware of before asking people to get vaccinated. It is not ethical or appropriate to insist on vaccinating the least-informed population.
Possibly in response to widespread apocalyptic interpretations of the vaccine, the PNG Council of Churches is now actively promoting its safety and benefits. The government also needs to step up its efforts and commit to a nationwide educational campaign, if the hope of an adequate vaccine is ever to be realized.
The success of the entire effort – and moving Papua New Guinea away from a public health disaster – will likely begin to convince the general public that the vaccine is a divine blessing and not a satanic curse.
Read more: Prashant went a year without COVID. Now, it’s all in danger