The ongoing campaign against COVID-19 has several religious attributes and analogues. I’m not talking about Mologic or Luciferase, or the way “Build Back Better” looks like code for 666, given that ‘b’ is a cipher for ‘6’. I’m not referring to the dozens of ways millenarians enthusiastically uncover apparent connections between this period of tribulation and biblical accounts of the end times – although, there are enough of those coincidences that one might suspect somebody is messing with us.
Many people, Christians and non-believers alike, anxiously anticipate that this pestilence could soon be compounded by famine, war, and death aplenty. But that’s not what I mean. The blasphemous sermon by New York’s new governor from September 26, wherein she called on congregants to become her apostles, is more on the mark.
What I mean is that the vaccines are portrayed as salvific. Upon the pandemic’s annunciation, vaccines were declared the one thing needful. Only through these would we ever see life on the other side of this crisis. Nowadays we worry that the virus has escaped the vaccines; back then, our concern was that vaccines for a virus like this had hitherto escaped us. Given how long it usually takes to develop and test innovations like these, we might have had seven years of trying times ahead of us.
To our great relief and amazement, our prayers were answered, and our faith in scientists was rewarded. We were in possession of novel technologies in a mere seven months. They arrived like a thief in the night, in a mere blink of an eye after that fiendish former President had fallen, heaping blessing upon blessing thereby. Can I get a Hallelujah?
Much has transpired in the interim since that glorious day. Scientists are now effectively regarded as sorcerers. Their occult expertise is deemed so impenetrable to all but the formally initiated that if anyone not properly trained in their arcane arts dares to read their texts or pronounce their words, great calamity shall befall us all. Public health experts are our schoolmen and public health officials our ecclesiastics. Nurses are saints. Doctors are our priests. Soon they’ll be sticking these jabs into prepubescent boys and girls incapable of meaningfully consenting – no need to tell mommy or daddy. Global health organizations are now our transcendent authorities. The WHO oversees a new Holy See. COVAX keeps track of us through its new Book of Life. Anyone not on the list will be left behind.
With fundamentalist fervour, we laymen yoke ourselves to these hierarchies with unwavering faith and adulation. People earnestly boast about resisting the temptation to think for themselves, rebuking anyone who ventures to try. Every time a non-expert asks a question or expresses some doubt, somebody’s grandmother gets her harp and wings.
Just because someone has math skills doesn’t mean they’re qualified to inspect the authorities’ use of statistics. Only a fool would suppose they possess sufficient logical acumen to expose or resolve the inscrutable equivocations, arbitrariness, incoherencies, contradictions, and sundry other unsound elements in the arguments and imperatives delivered by our moral and intellectual superiors. An appeal to “an abundance of caution” dissolves any conundrum and justifies every decree.
Our society’s credential fetishism inspires people to contemptuously ask skeptics, “where did you go to medical school?” We forget that doctors are not experts in all matters biological. In disciplines they don’t specialize in, they, too, rely more on trust than knowledge. Even within those fields where they are more expert, they still do lots of guesswork. They depend on their partners in the pharmaceutical industry – a lot. They’re beholden to professional associations and workplace administrators, as well as to the expenses they’re accustomed to incurring.
Under more normal circumstances, we have all met medical professionals unworthy of worship and adoration, arrogant jerks who seem to loathe their jobs and resent their patients. A significant proportion of physicians are people who were pretty good at school, who sought a well-compensated job that gave their families something to brag about. Yes, they’re smart and hard-working. Their shifts can be unpleasant and stressful. But they’re not demigods. Stop idolizing them. Never again let anyone tell you that they’re more essential than you are.
At present, their magisterium requires medical professionals to champion these treatments indiscriminately to all patients – old, young, and younger still. Some doctors’ offices and hospitals are turning unvaccinated patients away and denying them care, like high-caste elites shunning untouchables – as if their workspaces weren’t already places tainted daily by contagions.
We are now seeing heterodox health care professionals threatened and sanctioned, placed on leave or their licences suspended – defrocked, as it were – for refusing to comply with mandates, for expressing concern about adverse events, for granting exemptions, or otherwise hesitating to swear by the vaccines anything less than wholeheartedly. In upholding their Hippocratic Oath and for heeding their conscience, these renegades are revealed as hypocrites. To forestall scandal, the ranks must be purified of those we’ve falsely venerated for the past year and a half – even if that means sacrificing the health of even fully conforming patients through the incidental shortages of care that these excommunications cause.
Meanwhile, among research professionals, inquisitors are busy persecuting and ostracizing dissenters. An index of prohibited articles is being compiled, or something similarly censorious, to determine what findings professional journals may or may not disseminate.
Thanks to federal funding, subsidies, and ad purchases, not to mention the fear of losing access to our ministers and deaconry, our media now principally delivers religious programming. The CBC resembles The 700 Club; the Toronto Star is an angry Jack Van Impe, constantly predicting apocalypse.
Singing unending hymns of praise in unison, our “reporters” nationwide and their dutiful witnesses ensure that the good news about the vaccines reaches every corner and remote location – over the hills and everywhere. Their conscientious vigilance keeps us forewarned of the dangers of disobedience and safeguarded against misinformation, on alert against rebels, heretics, and apostates – all who are somehow unable to see the miracle transpiring around us.
Should somebody we still care for become exposed to the lies of our enemies, we have a catechism of trusty, easy-to-remember answers at the ready to console and restore them. “Trusted messengers” – like angels, including clergy recruited from obsolete cults – have been likewise enjoined to spread today’s gospel. Celebrities and relative nobodies alike are called to evangelize the unconverted on television and online.
Functionaries now go fishing by phone, personally connecting with isolated stragglers, offering friendly counsel and reassurance that a solicitous health establishment remains mindful of them. I am confident that missionaries will proselytize door to door soon, perhaps bearing pamphlets like Jehovah’s Witnesses and wearing distinctive uniforms like Mormons, with who knows what other assistants or implements at the ready.
I cannot help but wonder what rewards await those who are most successful at herding the flock. Given the vehemence of their exhortations, I’m beginning to suspect there are fewer than 144,000 spaces remaining for which they’re competing. I trust that those tasked with leading this crusade, the truly elect, have been promised positions as kings and queens in the world to come. Maybe they’ve been assured new bodies everlasting.
Among ordinary congregants, vaccine passports serve as a system of indulgences, releasing people from the purgatory of lockdowns and quarantines. In addition to carrying those around, the saved may boldly proclaim their status by adorning themselves with charms about their necks and wrists or pinned to their clothes. They may further decorate their social media accounts with slogans and images, jubilant or condemnatory, sacred and profane, testifying to their allegiance while passing judgment on others. Who doesn’t enjoy an old-fashioned virtual stone-throwing?
Receiving the vaccine is now the ultimate act of charity. We were taught to believe that we do this to protect each other, irrespective of whether the evidence confirms that. For a year now, no mantra or chant has been recited by rote more repetitiously than the affirmation that these injections are safe and effective. It’s a mantra and article of faith, a creed unto itself. Again and again, we shall piously avow that these prophylactics do indeed work every time we approach the table to receive another booster. And we shall not tolerate the sacrilege spoken by the perfidious attesting to alleged adverse reactions like so much fanciful folklore, the fables of heathens.
Unreliable diagnostics serve us as auguries. Anybody testing positive, with or without signs of infection, must be deemed ceremonially unclean for 14 days. People inopportunely within their polluted vicinity must be declared similarly defiled. As waves of infection wax and wane without regard for vaccination rates, our prophecies regarding the relaxation of emergency measures and restitution of mundane life must remain available for reinterpretation. Given the mysterious nature of evolving knowledge, we have learned to expect that things won’t go as expected.
That our knowledge remains uncertain, however, should not make the imperatives we base upon it any less absolute. Being “pre-emptive, precautionary, [and] overreactionary [sic],” as Archbishop Tam once declared, is the first commandment of public health. When outcomes disappoint, it is good to have a legion of infidels to blame – as well as the trespasses of those who are regrettably weak in faith and sometimes less than perfectly scrupulous in attending to their holy garments or heeding the codes and rituals that regulate our interactions.
To keep the faith alive, it must be practically all that anyone hears or talks about. Five times daily would hardly suffice. Signs and symbols of the faith must be ostentatious – like the lights overhanging freeways featuring the iconography of a syringe, imploring you to “get your vaccine.” It’s yours. There’s a special vial with your name on it, so designated and dedicated since the time of its creation. It was made just for you, and it is given to you for free.
Your acceptance of this free gift should be freely given, too. Don’t bother looking for any fine print to read; you won’t find it. Nobody is being coerced, we’re reminded – not technically speaking. There is, after all, no compulsion in religion. You may submit, or not – or rather, or else. If penalties and restrictions must be imposed upon you for obstinance, that, too, is your choice. Of course, the faithful will be rewarded in this world for their devotion and zeal. By the benefactions and dispensations they receive, you shall know them.
Meanwhile, those lost sheep who haven’t yet opened their hearts by risking their hearts may still be welcomed into the emerging family of artificial-mRNA-enhanced humankind – at least for a while – should they plead for forgiveness, perhaps after tiring of relying on alms, prepared to accept whatever series of shots shall be necessary to catch them up, by then more as penitence than medicine.
The shot itself has taken on a kind of sacramental significance. Is it a baptism or eucharist? Heck, why not both? It admits us, transforms us, sustains us, and unites us as a community built on trust.
On the subject of sacraments, the media loves relating confessions by recent converts. What these storytellers really savour, however, are reports of those who beg for the saving grace of the vaccines in those dire moments before they’re intubated, lamenting that they didn’t listen when the merits of these therapeutics were previously preached. These depraved, irredeemable reprobates seek absolution for their reticence through something like extreme unction. But no such benediction is forthcoming. There is no saving them now. It is too late for them.
We can only find solace in the hope that their deathbed damnations won’t be in vain so long as they yield compelling cautionary tales. Anecdotal evidence isn’t inherently objectionable, you see; it can be powerful when used in the service of righteousness. Beware all you sinners, lest ye, too, be subjected to the infernal machine that takes your breath for you – or from you.
Here ends the lesson. Put to death the old flesh and be born again to a new normal. Shut up and get the shot. “Science” – our lord almighty – “Will Win.” It comes in its own name to tell us so. Hosanna in the highest.
Travis D. Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Superhero Ethics (Templeton Press) and co-editor of Flattering the Demos (Lexington Books).
Travis is a Troy Media contributor. For interview requests, click here.
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