As the head chaplain at Los Angeles County + University of Southern California Medical Center — a public hospital in downtown Los Angeles — Father Chris Ponnet spends his days at the epicenter of the pandemic, tending to the spiritual needs of those who are sick with or dying from COVID-19.
The facility is overflowing, he says, adding that, “We have hospital beds now in what used to be a waiting room and all of our ICUs are almost exclusively COVID patients.”
As a frontline worker, Father Ponnet received the COVID-19 vaccine at the end of December, which makes him feel privileged, as well as conflicted.
On the one hand, he understands that he’s at higher risk of catching the virus than others; on the other, he knows that many other Americans who are vulnerable to infection are slipping through the cracks.
“The (vaccine) distribution has to include people who are not considered front-line people,” he says. “So many of our patients live in that reality.”
He points out that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted minorities and Americans from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who lack access to health care and often live in crowded conditions that facilitate the spread of the virus. Vaccine distribution needs to take those conditions into account, he says.
“How do we get this out to the most vulnerable?” he asks.
As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, Father Ponnet is far from the only religious leader raising questions about its distribution. Many have decried the decisions made so far, arguing that unequal access to the vaccine will only exacerbate existing racial and economic inequalities — both nationally and globally.
“The distribution of the vaccine is throwing a spotlight once again on racial inequality. ... We just need to open our eyes to see it and create models that will address it” both in the short term and long run, says Bishop Thomas Bickerton, who oversees hundreds of United Methodist churches in eastern New York and western Connecticut.
He and other religious leaders believe the vaccine rollout is a stark reminder of the need to address injustice in everything from health care to housing and an opportunity to begin to right systemic wrongs.
“We can see very clearly how inequitably resources are distributed — in this case, lifesaving resources,” says Rabbi Brant Rosen, who is the founder of the non-denominational Jewish synagogue Tzedek, which is Hebrew for justice. “If saving life isn’t sacrosanct then what right do we have to call ourselves people of faith?”
First in line
While CDC recommendations have specified that front-line workers, many of whom are minorities, should be prioritized in the vaccination process, some religious leaders believe this doesn’t go far enough.
Because Black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, they should get the vaccine first — regardless of their occupation or age or whether or not they have preexisting conditions, says the Rev. Myra Brown, a Black woman who leads Spiritus Christi, an Independent Catholic Church in Rochester, New York.
“If you’re a person of color, this virus has told us you are at risk,” she says. “If I was getting the vaccines in a particular area I’d vaccinate people of color regardless of what the guidelines say.”
At the very least, health officials should not let privileged people cut to the front of the line, says Bishop Bickerton, pointing to the politicians who have been vaccinated ahead of the population they serve.
He intends to follow in the footsteps of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has said he won’t get the vaccine until it’s available for Black, Hispanic, and economically underprivileged Americans in his age group.
“I continue to be very concerned about a distribution model that is not effective and especially for Black and brown communities who live in marginalized communities and don’t get quick access,” says Bishop Bickerton. “It’s time to relook at the distribution model.”
Bishop Bickerton is also troubled by the fact that doses of the vaccine have been shipped but not distributed.
“When you’ve got x amount of vaccines available and a very small number of those vaccines have been administered — we have a problem on our hands,” he says.
He points to Israel as an example of a country that is leading the world in administering the vaccine to its citizens. The United States, he says, can learn from the way the Israelis prepared ahead of time to get the vaccine out.
“The question is: what is the model that needs to be put in place that will increase our effectiveness?” he says.
But a leader of Chicago’s Jewish community sees Israel’s experience a bit differently.
“The term health apartheid has been used to describe what’s going on in Israel and Palestine (the occupied Palestinian territories),” says Rabbi Rosen. While Israel “is going to great pains to vaccinate citizens ... it is prioritizing them over the millions of Palestinians under their control.”
Just as minorities in America have struggled with the effects of the pandemic, so has the already-struggling Palestinian economy been pummeled in recent months. And, in the past few weeks, Israel has wrestled with a debate around its responsibilities to help vaccinate the Palestinian populations that live under its military rule.
Who is essential?
Reflecting on the similarities to minorities’ treatment in America, Rabbi Rosen says he is heartened by CDC recommendations that essential workers be prioritized in vaccination efforts. But he and other religious leaders also worry that the term “essential” means different things to different people.
“I think the definition of what is essential work and what is an essential worker is relatively subjective,” Rabbi Rosen says.
Reflecting on the recommendation that “essential workers” get the vaccine before other parts of the population, the Rev. Brown also raised concerns.
Such language, she says, replicates “the ways in which we are socialized to think about each other’s groups so that we maintain the inequalities that we have.”
In order to avoid that trap, people of faith “have to be thought leaders on this,” the Rev. Brown says. “We can’t let someone tell us who is essential and who is not essential, who is deserving and who is not deserving.”
Her remarks echo the sentiment expressed by Pope Francis in his Christmas Day speech. Likening the COVID-19 vaccine to a light of hope, Pope Francis said, “But for these lights to illuminate and bring hope to all, they need to be available to all.”
The “law of the marketplace and patents” should not “take precedence over the law of love and the health of humanity,” Pope Francis continued, as he called on “government leaders, businesses, international organizations to foster cooperation and not competition, and to seek a solution for everyone.”
If done well, the vaccine rollout could be the beginning of a more equitable approach to distributing all kinds of goods and services, religious leaders said.
“As we move towards a just recovery, we must ensure that immediate cures for the crises become stepping-stones to a more just society,” read a joint statement from the Vatican COVID-19 Commission and the Pontifical Academy for Life released last month.
Past pandemics helped inspire the creation of community-oriented institutions like hospitals, Father Ponnet says. The COVID-19 crisis is a similar opportunity to reexamine how we’re caring for the marginalized, in general.
“How do (we) encourage policies at a local level as well as a national and international level that address how we’re going to take care of the most vulnerable?” he says.