Specialists assure that the lack of information campaigns by the government, the late and disputed purchase of vaccines, as well as their slow distribution have contributed to an already widespread misinformation. Disinformation that circulates uncontrollably on social networks, as well as through the messages of certain religious leaders. According to what the Ministry of Health told Agencia Ocote, certain religious discourses represented a major obstacle to the vaccination campaign.
Between August and November 2021, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) conducted 2,310 surveys in 110 municipalities in Guatemala to assess why people had not been vaccinated.
According to the results, some of the main reasons are the belief that God protects and therefore it is not necessary to get vaccinated, or that getting vaccinated is an act of bad faith, with 27% of people saying that religious leaders in their community do not want them to be vaccinated.
This is not a new phenomenon. Religious leaders began spreading misinformation about COVID-19 in 2020, when they questioned the use of masks, government measures, and even the existence of a pandemic.
Evangelicals Lead the Way
In Santiago Atitlán, in the southern department of Sololá, Gaspar Sapalú, who heads the ‘Palabra Miel’ church, organized a religious parade in July 2020: dozens of people without masks waved flags and marched from his church in the streets, not respecting the curfew. Videos are also circulating on social networks in which Sapalú assures that the masks do not protect.
In Villa Nueva, a neighborhood in Guatemala City, Pastor Marco Antonio Díaz urged people not to get vaccinated. He says he is wary of the manufacturing process. During his religious services, which were shared on social networks, he assured that the vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses. It also promotes the consumption of chlorine dioxide to prevent COVID-19 – a substance considered toxic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and whose sale has been banned by the Guatemalan Ministry of Health.
In Nueva Concepción, Escuintla, south of Guatemala City, Víctor Morales, pastor and religious leader of the Evangelical El Buen Samaritano Church, urged his congregation not to be afraid of COVID-19 anymore because God protects them.
Protected by the blood of God
February 28, 2022. We are in Tiquisate, a municipality in the department of Escuintla with 57,292 inhabitants, 147 kilometers south of Guatemala City. In a half-built church, with four concrete columns, Víctor Morales preaches.
Morales oversees a church in Nueva Concepción, a municipality 17 kilometers from Tiquisate, and was asked today to inaugurate a new church.
About 150 people listen attentively. Only 10 of them wear a mask.
He assures that there will be no pandemic that can lead people away from their God and that COVID-19 offers the opportunity to come closer to the Church.
Pastor Victor Morales urged his congregation to lose their fear of COVID-19
Hours before the service, Morales opened up about why he’s not wearing a mask, why he’s not vaccinated, and why he’s sharing this message with his congregation.
“The word of God says that no harm will befall you, no pestilence will reach your home… A mask will not defend us from a quetzal; only the blood that Jesus shed can defend us and protect us from this destructive disease”, argues the pastor.
Lack of confidence
He has maintained this conviction since the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, when the government of Alejandro Giammattei closed the borders of Guatemala and instituted confinement to avoid contagion. His first reaction, he recalls, was to pray.
“The mask is used by those who want to use it. I say to them, ‘How can they believe that we are going to be infected here, in the church, before the presence of our Lord?’ It’s illogical. I never used a mask inside the church,” he says.
“With the vaccine, it’s the same. It’s a personal decision. I tell them to go, if they want. I don’t influence them,” he says. Even so, he maintains that God’s protection is sufficient and that is why he himself was not vaccinated.
In front of his family, his posture was that of a “warrior without armor”. “My wife and children told me to close the church. I told them that if they were afraid, they should not come. “Stay in the house, you scared cats,” I told them. »
A church that refuses to close
He shrugs when asked about the results of scientific studies that refute his arguments. “If someone catches the disease and dies, it’s when God has decided. People die even if they are vaccinated,” he argues, despite global evidence proving the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing contagion and hospitalizations.
In addition, the Ministry of Health records that between January and March 2022, 86% of patients who died from COVID-19 in Guatemala did not have a vaccine.
Two years after the start of the pandemic, the pastor has never closed his church and has not stopped rendering his services. His argument is that God will hold him responsible if he does not continue to preach.
If someone catches the disease and dies, it is when God has decided.
The church has a television station that has been running for a decade. He also broadcasts all of his messages on Facebook. But he says many people in his congregation don’t have access to television, cable or the Internet. For this reason, he did not want to stop offering his service in person, despite the restrictions imposed by the government, which at the start of the pandemic banned religious events.
“I was not going to close the church with my hands. If the police or the authorities came to lock her up, well, that was another story. But I wasn’t going to be the one to shut it down. At first there were 15 of us. Then there were about 50 of us, we stayed here to sleep during the curfews and left the next day,” he laughs.
Learn more about masks
Morales joined the evangelical faith at the age of 28 and, at 35, founded his own church, El Buen Samaritano, which belongs to a network of six churches of which he is the main pastor.
He says the pastors of the six churches share his belief that divine protection is what is needed to deal with the pandemic.
Some media said that pastors and evangelists from the Morales church, under his leadership, had established checkpoints on the road to Nueva Concepción. They reportedly stopped vehicles traveling in the commune to urge people not to get vaccinated or wear masks.
Morales assures that this is false: “We urged them to have faith in God,” he says.
Before the start of the service in Tiquisate on February 28, three adults, all without masks, avoid answering whether or not they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. They also prefer not to share their names. They assure that they have God’s protection, and that is enough.
*You can read the full story in Spanish by Agencia Ocotepart of the special series “Those who are not vaccinated in Central America and Mexico”, promoted by the members of the media alliance Other Miradas.
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