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Before the world went into lockdown in March 2020, the word “pandemic” had never been part of my regular vocabulary—and I’m willing to guess I’m not the only one. I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who could not only help explain the relevance and real-life impact of COVID-19, but also drive home the fact that stamping down the virus would be a community effort.
One of my closest and oldest friends is an epidemiologist. Using both the plague (the topic of his doctoral thesis) and the flu pandemic of 1918 as examples, he helped me understand the harm an uncontrollable virus is capable of, as well as the lasting impact on our bodies, on ecology, and on humanity itself.
The plague still exists, he told me. It can be found in rodents in Africa, Asia, South America, and even the United States. Hundreds of years of evolution and adaptation have evolved the plague so that there’s minimal chance a human is infected. But if a person does contract it—which can happen if a person is bitten by a flea or animal that carries the disease or handles an animal that is infected—there are multiple antibiotics on the market that serve as effective treatment. Because it’s uncommon for humans to contract the plague, no vaccine for the disease is needed.
In contrast, there is a vaccine for the flu—a new one every year in fact—to combat the strains of the virus that are most widespread at that time of its development. Not everyone gets the flu vax, of course (on average, it’s only 40 percent effective), but those who do contribute to the community’s overall immunity against the virus.
Vaccination as a form of ahimsa
My cousin, who holds her Master’s in Public Health, sent me an article by Matthew M. Davis, MD, that explained the importance of vaccines and how they impact our society: “Vaccination protects against illnesses in two main ways,” Davis wrote. When a person is immunized, the vaccine stimulates their immune system to recognize the harmful bacteria or virus and protect against it. This means that inoculations protect the person who is receiving it.
But vaccines also protect communities at large through herd immunity. Simply put, herd immunity means that the more people are immunized, the fewer people will catch a virus and then spread it. Just as a herd of animals form a protective circle around its most vulnerable members, immunized people in a community protect the less- or non-immunized people in that same community.
“This is an extremely important benefit of vaccination programs, because not everyone can receive vaccines—for medical reasons, and because some people who have been vaccinated will not fully respond. When it comes to battling diseases, humans need the protection of herds, too,” writes Davis.
We are all connected
Based on everything I’ve learned about the pandemic, it seemed that COVID-19, and the collective risk the virus has on the population, was proof that we are all truly connected. The health and wellness of those around me can and do affect me, personally. And my health could impact others, too.
When it was time for me to decide whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, as a yoga practitioner and teacher, I turned to the values instilled throughout my practice. It was clear what my duty was throughout the pandemic: to practice ahimsa—non-violence, non-harm.
To me, getting vaccinated against a rampant virus that has killed more than 4 million people around the world felt like the ultimate exercise of the first ethical discipline of the yamas. By protecting myself against COVID-19, I was in turn protecting my loved ones, my community, and the world at large.
At the very least, my vaccination would set an example for those in my life who I knew were on the fence. At most, it would help protect those who didn’t yet have access to a vaccine by ensuring that I would be less likely to catch and spread the virus.
See also: What Is Ahimsa?
Not all yogis
Not everyone in the yoga space thinks this way. I have been surprised to see members of our wellness community shirk mask-wearing, social distancing, and vaccination against COVID-19. What is stopping some of my yoga friends from getting vaccinated? I wondered.
Some are hesitant to get vaxxed because they prefer holistic practices to Westernized medicine. We see yoga aligned with a healthy, “natural” lifestyle. For many, that means avoiding pharmaceuticals and embracing holistic remedies.
For others, the fast pace of the mRNA vaccine approval produced some skepticism. How could we be certain they would work? people wondered. What about potential side effects?
Then some popular spiritual leaders and holistic wellness influencers began touting the faulty idea that vaccinated people could cause harm to others. I heard talk of falsified “vaccine shedding” cases showing up on Instagram. Misinformation began to spread throughout the yoga community.
Leaning toward facts, not misinformation
With so many opinions flying around, how is a yogi to know what is true? As always, we want to look at the science. While holistic practices can be helpful or even life-saving in some instances of a COVID-19 infection, there is currently no clinically researched data available about holistic remedies for the virus. But you know what we do have data on? The efficacy of our vaccines to protect those in our most vulnerable and marginalized communities, who are more at risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19, or even dying from it.
Despite the common misconception, the COVID-19 vaccines weren’t just thrown together. My sister-in-law, a medical research administrator, told me that mRNA vaccines have actually been in the works since the 1990s. Pharmaceutical companies were able to create vaccines against COVID-19 so quickly—and get them approved by the FDA for emergency use—because of three decades of research that had preceded this moment.
This information felt reassuring to me, but it wasn’t being reflected in clickbait articles on my newsfeed. As vaccine misinformation spread, I began to worry that verifiable scientific facts weren’t being echoed throughout the yoga and wellness communities.
It felt like more and more people were declining the vaccine, and it made me worry, both for their health and wellness, and the health and wellness of everyone they were connected to.
Vaccination is for the greater good
It brought me right back to my understanding of ahimsa. While the concept of ahimsa’s direct command is not to kill, its wider, and more positive meaning is simple: to love.
Ahimsa is in the eye of the beholder. What may seem harmless to you may be very harmful to me. But, looking at this from a yogic perspective, should our concern be just for what harms us as individuals, or what is for the greater good?
Many within the yoga and wellness space have adopted an open-minded lifestyle. But a “You Do You” mentality becomes harmful when we overlook crucial aspects of our yogic responsibility: to love and protect others from harm.
As a young, upper-middle class white woman, I understood that this pandemic would not hit me the hardest. It would impact marginalized communities, medical professionals and hospital staff, people who work low-paying jobs in grocery stores and delivery services, as well as the elderly and immunocompromised populations far more than it would impact me and my household.
Considering this information, my COVID-19 vaccine was a vote in the interest of people who were more vulnerable than me. For me, getting vaccinated felt like a huge step in forming a protective circle around high-risk and/or non-immunized people within my community. The more of us who are vaccinated, the higher our chances of collective health and wellness—and yes, a return to the social lives we once enjoyed.
Achieving herd immunity isn’t about everyone getting vaccinated, it’s about enough of us choosing vaccination in order to protect the most vulnerable of the herd. It’s about ahimsa. It’s about love.
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