From a Humanist Perspective, Vaccination is an Ethical Obligation
June 7, 2021
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. The series features racially and religiously diverse leaders across the United States who shared their stories with IA via one-on-one interviews. In addition to illuminating distinctive experiences of the pandemic through a faith lens, these interviews offer practical guidance for conducting vaccine outreach in thoughtful, culturally competent ways.
The following interview features Anthony Cruz Pantojas, co-chair of the Latinx Humanist Alliance, an affiliate of the American Humanist Association. The interview was conducted by Shauna Morin for IA; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith America (IA): It’s great to be with you. To start off, could you share a bit about your role with the Latinx Humanist Alliance as well as some context about how it’s situated within the American Humanist Association?
Anthony Cruz Pantojas (ACP): The Latinx Humanist Alliance is an affiliate of the larger American Humanist Association. We are one of many affiliates with what I call an “ear to the ground” in terms of how humanism is in conversation with different intersectionalities that compose our identities as human beings. So, we are part of the Latinx expression of a humanist life stance.
IA: Great, thank you. I’m sure there are diverse answers to my next question, but how has the Latinx community been experiencing the pandemic, and have there been unique challenges or supports that have been present over the past 14 or 15 months?
ACP: I would say that, as you just highlighted, in no way, shape, or form am I speaking fully for the Latino/a/x community. I’m speaking more from a personal experience, and particularly within my circle of influence. That being said, one of the challenges I’ve seen in in the Latinx community is actually how Covid-19, this global pandemic—and I do emphasize the global—has really highlighted a lot of social and historical inequalities and actions against minority communities, particularly here in North America and beyond its borders. If you don’t have the power, the connections, the political or the citizenship status that opens doors to many federal, national, or local programs … you’re basically on the margins. In the Latinx Humanist Alliance, it has been challenging. We as individuals are trying to make sense of everything that’s happening, navigating the hurdles and some of the roadblocks that allow some people to receive the vaccine faster. Even depending on where you live, who you know, what preconditions you have … all these checkmarks really give you access.
IA: What efforts are being made within the humanist community to address these issues that have surfaced? Can you give some examples?
ACP: We [the Latinx Humanist Alliance] recently were trying to push advice and different projects alongside the broader American Humanist Association, including Covid-19 testing, treatment, and cash payments for all regardless of immigration status. We were interested in working with the ACLU and others to really center the conversation in the broader public sphere on the immigration reality, how the law and different policies exclude people who don’t have the right fill-in-the-blank that might give them access to vaccines, or any medical access. We were really pushing for this understanding that the Covid-19 vaccine should be available to the majority amount of people, but particularly looking at those on the periphery that are outside the center of our societies.
The American Humanist Association Center for Education also did a “Humanism During Covid-19” series that included sessions on connecting with the humanist community, mutual aid to help with the pandemic (pre-vaccine), and how to live a good life in a pandemic. I find that, even though we don’t have a centralized body, humanists throughout the country have really been pushing this agenda of wanting to provide continued education and literacy, but as part of their own lived reality—talking about if they have gotten the vaccine or not and providing that more human perspective rather than just looking at statistics.
IA: When you talk about gathering health experts to share accurate information with a human focus, a relational focus, are you seeking out people who come from the communities you’re going into?
ACP: Yes. I think you’re highlighting something that kind of ties back to the Latinx Humanist Alliance, which is really looking at that human dimension … looking particularly at how the message is transmitted and provided to the greatest number of people and utilizing individuals who already have relationships and routes and commitment to their communities. It’s great to have the experts, but at the same time, what form of relationality do they employ? This global pandemic and the different efforts we have made have highlighted, at least for me, that it’s not just you and your expertise. Sometimes people forget because they’re speaking from a professional standpoint. There might be a notion that a person has access [to a community] because they’re a doctor or nurse or counselor or clergy … but it’s more complex than that.
IA: So, from your perspective, who are the access grantors in the Latinx community?
ACP: That’s a very, very tough question. In all honesty, I really don’t have an answer because the Latino/a/x community is so broad in its diversity that it would be hard to say, “Here’s one person that taps into the different groups.” But I would say that at least what I have experienced so far, a lot of nonprofit organizations serve as catalysts to provide access to different medical resources. So, I think the answer is more a collective of different organizations.
IA: On another note, I’m wondering about the influence of any principles or tenets of humanism. As we think about where we are now with sort of this last push, asking if we can get more people vaccinated to get to herd immunity, are there dimensions of the humanist tradition that could inform people’s way of thinking about getting vaccinated?
ACP: For me, one of the tenets is the desire for human liberation from social inequality. I find that a freethinker, agnostic, humanist, heretic, fill-in-the-blank would really look for that human-to-human connection, and … would really be unapologetic about imposing an elevated quality of life. It is almost an ethical or moral obligation, I would say, for freethinkers, humanists, heretics, and so forth [to support vaccination]. We’re not basing it out of a theistic understanding, or a particular tradition that is mandating us to do it, but there is a weight on our shoulders. Because we are really impelled by our own processes of free thought, it should be innate within us and part of our own ethical development that we should be agents of mutuality, accountability, and accessibility [when it comes to the vaccine].
IA: One thing I’m curious about is where you personally are seeing the barriers to vaccination most within the Latinx community, either on the access side or on the hesitancy side. I’m really interested in what conversations you’ve had or what senses you’ve had in your direct interactions.
ACP: I would say the tendency among people is, “Well, there’s not enough data, there’s not enough evidence.” For them, it’s not the same thing as if you were saying you wanted them to take blood pressure pills and there are 3,000 different variants, so they would have a choice. In that case, they would have the ability to sit with their computer and read articles or listen to different medical communities. With Covid-19, we’re learning as we go, and that is really important for us as people to realize, that it’s okay. It’s okay for medical professionals or the CDC to be able to say, “Yes, last month we said X and then six months later or a year later, we found out that it’s not X but Y.” And that does not mean they were lying; it doesn’t mean they were hiding information.
IA: I’m hearing you talk about a lack of trust as a reason for hesitancy. What steps do you think are valuable to build trust within your community?
ACP: I would go back to the concept of collective liberation. How do we look back at our societies? How do we treat people in general, especially those that are not part of the dominant culture, dominant practices, the dominant economic class? How are we, as a nation, treating them? And if we are not doing the best that we can, then that’s the first step we need to take. We have to empower different communities, raising the people from those communities. We go to the YMCA, or we tap into spiritual and religious centers or other spaces, and say, “These are some of the things that we want to do. What would be your input? What would be your wisdom?”
We are, as a society, in a crisis mode right now. As a nation, we have spent billions of dollars because this is a life-or-death challenge right now. If we have a desire to really provide for an elevated quality of life [for everyone], we should respond with that same urgency, with that same desire. That means tapping into different leaders, community leaders, public figures … who are able to maximize their networks and their connections to hopefully reach the most amount of people. And not necessarily requesting that people come to us, but us going to the different communities.
IA: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share about encouraging vaccination in communities you work with?
ACP: I find that being trained in the field of anthropology, having received a master’s in theological studies, and being really rooted and immersed in different humanist spaces has given me the sensibility to understand that it is not all about being convinced or proving or disproving particular tenets, beliefs, ideologies, or what have you. I think [the key to change lies] in the power of relationships, where people can bring forth their stories and narratives, including those of their ancestors, elders, and communities, and allowing spaces for organic processes to happen.
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