Medical Ethicist Warns: Beware the Idolatry of a COVID-19 Vaccine
The entire world is focused on a vaccine for COVID-19 so we can get back to “normal,” whatever that will mean.
Timelines vary as to when one or more vaccines for the SARS-CoV-2 virus will be available. Some authorities, such as the executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies program, fear that, like AIDS, we may not be able to eradicate this virus.
Others say they will refuse to be vaccinated even if and when one is available.
As a medical ethicist, I am in favor of a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus so long as it meets the four criteria of biomedical ethics: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice.
Autonomy requires that those to be vaccinated are able to make self-determined, non-coerced decisions regarding the procedure and that they understand its risks and benefits. Beneficence requires that the vaccine be provided for the purpose of benefiting the recipient. Non-maleficence requires that the vaccine does not harm the patient or others in society and that the patient’s privacy is protected. Justice requires that the vaccine is made available to all groups in society.
I am confident that the relevant medical authorities will not release a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus unless it meets these criteria. And I am hopeful that such a vaccine will confer a polio-like immunity for humanity.
As an evangelical theologian, however, I am concerned not with what such a vaccine can do but with what it cannot do.
Facing Our Own Mortality
I do not believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is God’s judgment on the world. But I do believe that one way God is redeeming this horrible disease is by using it to make us more aware of our mortality than we were six months ago.
Churches are reporting unprecedented audiences for their online services, far exceeding the capacities of their physical campuses. One church that averaged eight thousand viewers for its online service before the pandemic had an audience of 1.3 million on Easter Sunday. Our ministry has experienced the largest reach in our history by far.
A deadly virus for which we have no immunity or vaccine is an existential threat for which we need existential hope.
If and when a vaccine immunizes humanity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, our secularized society will shift its focus from death to life, from fearing the virus to rebuilding our economy.
But we will be no less mortal than we are now.
With an effective vaccine, you and I will not die of COVID-19. However, unless Christ returns first, we will die of something else. It may be that heart disease returns to its prior place as the No. 1 killer of Americans. It may be that another virus takes the place of SARS-CoV-2 in birthing a pandemic.
But our mortality rate will still be 100 percent.
Our generation has become inured to death. We see it portrayed in movies, television shows, and video games on an unprecedented level of fictional violence, all of which desensitizes us to its reality.
And before the pandemic, we held the misguided belief that so long as we eat a healthy diet, don’t drink excessively or smoke, and get regular check-ups, we can banish death from our thoughts at least until we achieve old age.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus exposed the folly of that delusion.
A vaccine may immunize us against the virus, but it will not immunize us against death. To pretend otherwise is to make a vaccine an idol. It is to trust something we create more than we trust our Creator.
Christians know that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 NIV). But the pandemic offers an urgent reminder: we are one day closer to that day than ever before.
And we have only today to be ready.