Brazil has an ally in the fight against Covid vaccination disinformation: The Catholic Church.
Brazil is famous for having one of the most successful public vaccination programs in the world. Every year, more than 300 million doses of serums and vaccines are produced and distributed throughout the continent-sized country.
Vaccination programs have eradicated diseases like smallpox and polio and continue to prevent outbreaks of measles, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough. Brazil’s vaccination programs regularly reach people in urban peripheries, rural areas and the indigenous communities of its vast interior.
Despite the nation’s successes with vaccines, during the Covid-19 pandemic more Brazilians than ever have come to fear vaccination. The bishops’ conference and at least two cardinals—Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of São Paulo, and Orani João Tempesta, the archbishop of Rio de Janeiro—have enthusiastically joined the pro-vaccine chorus to address that resistance.
“What we can do as a church is to make people aware of the importance of vaccination,” said Cardinal Tempesta. He even hosted a vaccination event at the feet of Christ the Redeemer. “The church wants the good of all. As soon as requested we will be on hand to help raise awareness. I am sure scientists and companies working to reach this great good that is a Covid-19 vaccine are doing the best they can.”
Despite Brazil’s successes with vaccines, during the Covid-19 pandemic more Brazilians than ever have come to fear vaccination efforts because of disinformation campaigns.
A recent Datafolha poll shows that only 79 percent of Brazil’s 209.5 million people would like to receive a vaccine against the coronavirus, down 10 points from the 89 percent who agreed to accept one in August 2020. So far, vaccination in Brazil is not mandatory, but those who do not get a coronavirus shot can be prevented from traveling or taking a public office, among other restrictions.
Cardinal Scherer told America that he was deeply concerned about “the controversy surrounding the vaccine against the coronavirus and Covid-19.” He said that, while it is natural to fear the unknown, “resistance [to vaccination] may be linked to little information or to misinformation produced and disseminated for whatever reasons and interests.”
But, he added, it can also be supported by “ideological prejudices and political motivations.”
“The production of vaccines is an achievement of modern science and medicine, making it possible to prevent and overcome epidemics,” the cardinal said. “Now that vaccines are coming, there is a certain movement of resistance to vaccines. [But] I want to be vaccinated as soon as possible.”
In a statement released on Jan. 6, the Brazilian bishops’ conference wrote that “we cannot surrender to the indifference of some and the denialism of others.” According to the statement: “misinformation can lead to irresponsible actions.” The bishops ask for unity among public authorities, adding that “vaccines should be accessible to all.” The bishops quote Pope Francis arguing that vaccines are an expression of solidarity.
The bishop responsible for chaplains and health pastoral ministry in the country, the Most Rev. Roberto Francisco Ferrería Paz, told America that it has become necessary for the church to resist denialism about vaccines and help spread accurate information. “Science shows us that we need the vaccine. It is sad when a government becomes the main opponent of science and vaccination,” he said, referring to confusing statements out of President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration.
Brazil’s Cardinal Scherer said that he was deeply concerned about “the controversy surrounding the vaccine against the coronavirus and Covid-19.”
According to Bishop Paz, the bishops’ conference is joining other civil society organizations in a “Pact for Life for Brazil” through which they intend to meet state governors “to overcome resistance against the vaccine, especially from federal authorities.”
According to João Henrique Rafael Jr., a social media researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of São Paulo, vaccine coverage has been falling in Brazil since 2015 because of an erroneous belief that some diseases are no longer a major risk. “The success of the vaccines has damaged the vaccination program itself,” he said. “Measles [outbreaks] have not occurred for years and people began to believe that it was no longer necessary to be vaccinated.”
Another contributor to vaccine skepticism has been a sharp increase in misleading information on the internet. In October 2019, “we noticed that 67 percent of the population believed in some false information about vaccines,” Mr. Henrique Rafael said. That is why he founded a coalition of academic and scientific institutions called União Pró-Vacina (“The Pro-vaccine Union”).
His research group has been monitoring fake news and antivax groups on Facebook, where most of them congregate before spreading disinformation on other social media like WhatsApp and YouTube. “Some of these Facebook groups have almost 25,000 members. The oldest one is over six years old. The pandemic brought new questions and, while scientists worked hard on developing new vaccines, activists produced brand-new disinformation on Covid-19,” Mr. Henrique Rafael said.
Motivations behind these communities are both ideological and financial. Some of their leaders really believe in conspiracy theories and operate “as a sort of sect,” he said. They can be funded by direct sponsors but also through ad views at YouTube accounts that have been monetized. Vaccine skeptics claim that vaccines cause autism, changes DNA or are even used to insert mobile chips from China to monitor and ultimately control the entire world population.
President Bolsonaro has questioned the intentions of big pharmaceutical companies, jokingly declaring that the vaccine could change human anatomy: “If you turn into an… alligator, it’s your problem, they do not care.”
Although anti-vaccine groups are well known in countries like the United States and France, they are still a new phenomenon in Brazil. Alexandre Naime Barbosa, the head of Infectology at São Paulo State University and consultant to the Brazilian Society of Infectology, explains that the spread of misinformation about vaccines in Brazil has been propelled by the federal government under President Bolsonaro, who is now in the second year of his four-year term.
“I do not like to make comments about politics, but the federal government, which should be the primary force responsible for promoting vaccine credibility, is actually playing against it,” said Dr. Barbosa. “The president has made some weird comments, saying that he will not be responsible for side effects caused by vaccines, while scientific studies have consistently shown their safety and effectiveness.”
The president, who survived his own brush with Covid-19 in July, said that he “had the best vaccine,” the virus itself. “I’m not going to get a vaccine, period. It’s my problem,” said Mr. Bolsonaro, who at one point intended to make Brazilians sign a statement of consent that would indemnify the government from side effects before getting vaccinated.
The president has even questioned the intentions of big pharmaceutical companies, jokingly declaring that the vaccine could change human anatomy: “If you turn into an… alligator, it’s your problem, they do not care. If you become Superman, if a lady grows a beard, or if a man starts talking [in a feminine voice], they will say they have nothing to do with it.”
Arguing that Brazil’s federal government displayed contempt for protecting the health of the population and showed criminal conduct, 380 Christian religious leaders in Brazil have filed an impeachment request against President Jair Bolsonaro for shirking his responsibilities during the crisis. To date, a total of 63 impeachment requests have been filed against Mr. Bolsonaro.
“Faced with the most serious public health crisis in the history of the country and the planet, the president of the republic, irresponsibly, oscillated between denialism [and] contempt and [is responsible for the] sabotage of the prevention and health care policies of Brazilian citizens,” read part of the document presented to Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies on Jan. 26.
The Bolsonaro administration has “joined the anti-vaccine discussions, putting fear in the population. It is disastrous…. I don’t want to say genocidal, but it’s hard to find another word.”
According to the document, since the beginning of the pandemic Mr. Bolsonaro has sought to discredit renowned national scientific institutions, held back resources meant to fight the virus and encouraged the population to use medication, such as chloroquine, that has no proven efficacy to cope with the disease.
The president, say the religious leaders, has also mocked basic health recommendations to fight Covid-19.
“There is a contempt for the use of masks and social distancing and, until recently, a disregard for vaccines,” the Most Rev. José Santos Mendes of Brejo, president of the Brazilian bishops’ social action commission, told Catholic News Service.
Bishop Mendes was one of four bishops who signed the petition.
Brazil currently produces a vaccine, CoronaVac, through the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, initially developed in China. The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine will be produced by Fiocruz in Rio de Janeiro. That vaccine is currently imported from India. Both Butantan and Fiocruz are public research institutes.
The purchase and distribution of vaccines has been heavily politicized from the start because the governor of São Paulo, business executive João Doria, led the negotiations with China. He began São Paulo’s vaccination program ahead of the federal government. Mr. Doria is one of Mr. Bolsonaro’s political rivals and a potential candidate to the presidency in 2022.
On Jan. 28, Brazil had registered 220,000 deaths and 9 million cases of Covid-19. Numbers grew exponentially after the year-end holiday parties and traveling. The spike was especially hard on the Amazonian region, where the health system collapsed and dozens died after hospitals ran out of oxygen cylinders.
Epidemiology experts attribute the accelerating pace of the epidemic to a new variant of the coronavirus and the lack of enforcement of social-distancing measures by national and local authorities.
The Brazilian Health Ministry, currently led by an active army general, Eduardo Pazzuelo, “consistently recommended drugs that have no scientific proof to work against the disease, corroborating the use of hydroxychloroquine, nitazoxanide, ivermectin, etc.,” said Dr. Barbosa. “No serious international organization recommends them.
“Instead, they have joined the anti-vaccine discussions, putting fear in the population. It is disastrous…. I don’t want to say genocidal, but it’s hard to find another word.”
Mr. Henrique Rafael said that public authorities in Brazil should be held accountable for reinforcing resistance to vaccines, and the same applied to social media platforms. “They need to adjust their algorithms, which promote fake, but engaging, posts,” he said. “We need all the help we can get to put the right word out on vaccines. We live not only in a pandemic, but also an ‘infodemic,’” he said.
With reporting from Catholic News Service
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