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Monday, December 5, 2022

East German Pastors Push for Vaccines

When the pastor of St. Petri Church in Chemnitz, Germany, opened the wrought-iron doors, he exhaled with satisfaction as he saw the long line of people waiting in the cold for coronavirus vaccinations.

The Rev. Christoph Herbst had asked a relief group and volunteer doctors to organize a Sunday immunization clinic at the Lutheran church with the help of the parish council. The pastor was well aware that his act of community outreach may not go over well in a section of Germany where vaccination resistance is common, leading to occasionally violent protests.

Herbst stated as he welcomed the audience inside his neo-Gothic temple of prayer, “I was really apprehensive about how people would react to our invitation.” “There are a lot of divergent and heated views in our region concerning coronavirus measures in general, how to fight the pandemic, and notably immunizations.”

The state of Saxony, which includes Chemnitz and Dresden, has the lowest vaccination rate of Germany’s 16 federal states and the greatest number of COVID-19 cases. By Christmas, just 60.1 percent of people had received all of their vaccinations, compared to a national average of 70.8 percent. Local hospitals had to move patients out of state at times during the epidemic because all of the intensive care beds were occupied.

Vaccines have been promoted by Lutheran pastors across Saxony in their sermons as the most effective approach to avoid serious sickness and terminate the epidemic. Many churches, like Herbst’s, held clinics this month in the hopes of persuading some skeptics by providing vaccinations in a familiar setting and without requiring previous registration.

“We feel that we have a responsibility that extends beyond ourselves, and that we should use the resources we have to accomplish something good for society,” Herbst added. “We’re not physicians or professionals,” said the group. But we have the room and volunteers who can put something like this together.”

Chemnitz, a city of around 247,000 people, was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt while it was part of the old communist East Germany, as was the rest of Saxony. According to Herbst, many of the local vaccination refusers express worries about probable adverse effects, as well as feeling overwhelmed by what they see as excessive government pressure or broad resistance to any steps backed by the government.

Hannelore and Bernd Hilbert, a retired couple from the neighbouring town of Amtsberg, were among those who patiently waited in a pew waiting to roll up their sleeves at Herbst’s church. They came for booster injections since several of their five grandkids are too young to be vaccinated, and the Hilberts were hoping to see them for Christmas.

“Christmas last year was quite depressing. Hannelore Hilbert, 70, remarked, “We were all alone.”

“We’re grateful for the church offering these doses,” her 72-year-old husband remarked, adding that they had tried unsuccessfully to get shots at a hospital a few days before.

On a recent Sunday, the great majority of the church’s vaccination recipients shared more in common with the booster-seeking couple than with the doubtful or fearful community members Saxony’s pastors are attempting to reach.

18 of the 251 immunizations given out during St. Petri’s day-long clinic went to those who were getting their first dose. They refused to talk to The Associated Press about why they’d changed their minds and opted to receive vaccinations over a year after Germany’s national immunization program began.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, a vocal minority in Germany has rejected any anti-virus efforts. After the national parliament issued a vaccination mandate for some professions this month, and most of the country’s regions reinstated some sort of restrictions in response to the new wave of illnesses, opposition grew harsher and more forceful in recent weeks.

Vaccine opponents have assembled for protest “walks,” unofficial marches planned rapidly via social media because big protests have been outlawed in certain regions of the nation owing to the epidemic. One night, over 30 demonstrators with torches gathered outside the residence of Saxony state Health Minister Petra Koepping, yelling insults until police came.

In recent days, the protests have grown in size, attracting thousands of people at times. Several people were arrested by police for assaulting cops and media. Some Lutheran pastors have faced backlash and threats as a result of their efforts to promote vaccination.

Herbst believes that the majority of Saxons support the country’s vaccination effort, and that far-right organisations seeking to undermine democracy have seized on anti-vaccine sentiment, generating a sense of abandonment among inhabitants of Germany’s east 30 years after the country’s reunification.

When parishioners approach him about their anti-vaccine views, the priest says he tries to listen rather than pass judgment.

“And I pay attention to things that aren’t always easy to hear,” he said. “I also listen to items that I believe are in the conspiracy theory category.” I can’t vouch for such claims. But it’s critical that we have a space where we can listen to each other without automatically condemning each other.”

The pastor, on the other hand, wonders if all of the reasons for and against vaccination have been traded, and whether or not to be inoculated should no longer be a question of personal choice.

“Some argue that now is the time for a democratically legitimized decision by parliament on a broad vaccination mandate,” Herbst added. “That would be a judgment made on the basis of a set of rules that apply to everyone, rather than moral pressure.”

Cedric Blackwater
Cedric Blackwater
Cedric is a journalist with over a decade of experience reporting on local US news, and touching on many global topics. He is currently the lead writer for Bulletin News.

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