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When doctors make the worst patients

January 16, 2021

My mother doesn't want to get vaccinated against COVID-19. And she's a medical doctor. The word "conflicted" doesn't even begin to cover my reaction, says DW's Sertan Sanderson.

Doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine
A little pinprick can go a long wayImage: Borja Abargues/NurPhoto/Getty Images

We probably all have family members who overshare their skeptical attitudes towards COVID-19 news. And for the sake of pluralistic discourse, this may not be such a bad thing. In my case, however, it is my mother whom I keep rubbing up against when it comes to the pandemic. 

She was born one month before the end of World War II, and one can perhaps not blame her generation for placing a high value on maintaining certainty in life by adhering to conservative values. But the fact that she is a medical doctor with decades of professional experience puts a rather strange twist on the situation. 

Medically founded skepticism?

To be fair, my mother's skepticism has nothing to do with conspiracy theories, but is rather the product of her medical training and foundation itself. The fact that various COVID-19 vaccines were developed in less than a year is enough reason for her to question its whole narrative. 

Sertan Sanderson
DW's Sertan Sanderson comes from a family of doctors — much to his own chagrin

After all, it took decades to eradicate polio or smallpox, she routinely argues. There hasn't been enough time to test its efficacy, she says — let alone to ensure it is safe.

If decades of research had to go into developing, say, a Hepatitis-B vaccine, she further insists, how come Pfizer, Moderna and co. can come up with a jab against COVID-19 so fast?

Parenting your parent

As far as skepticism goes, her attitude is possibly on the healthy side. But it also leaves me, a journalist, in the uncomfortable position of having to defend her medical profession as a whole — and to her face. 

The massive advancements in medical science over the past half century seem to matter little to this woman, who still believes that the only answer to repeated period cramps is opting for an elective hysterectomy, and that male circumcision is the best guarantor of steering clear of sexually transmitted infections.

Medical workers unpacking COVID-19 vaccines
Is it ethical for medical personnel to take a stance against vaccination?Image: Rassin Vannier/AFP/Getty Images

This is where it gets frustrating: I repeatedly seem to hit a wall trying to explain that with a minute organism like the novel coronavirus, there is no microscopic surgery that can remove both the cause and all the symptoms of the disease in the way that her interpretation of modern medicine should work. You cannot just cut it out or prescribe an antibiotic to make it go away. The only solution at the moment is to develop herd immunity, and since we cannot endanger people by exposing them to the virus itself, this can only safely be achieved by mass inoculation.

Failing to explain to a septuagenarian, retired general practitioner that in these current sets of circumstances, getting the vaccine might well be in her own best interest rather reminds me of trying to communicate to a toddler that the contents of a sandbox are not food. In both scenarios, there seems to be a fair amount of tears involved in the end.

GMF compact: what's in a jab?

A slippery slope?

Spending Christmas with my mother, I've also had the repeated displeasure of her comparing the pandemic to HIV health policies: If scientists could come up with a way to curb COVID-19 so quickly, she wonders, how come there is no cure yet for HIV/AIDS? In her book, this apparently counts as another clue suggesting that the COVID-19 vaccinations are bogus.

The talented doctor, who finished second of her class back in the early 1970s, won’t appreciate the complexities that are at play here: She fails to understand how for years, pharmaceutical patents slowed down the fight against HIV; how the US — the country that invests the most in research and development — used AIDS in the 1980s as a political bargaining tool in elections, practically signing the death warrants of thousands of homosexuals; and how in the past 25 years, DNA-research has grown exponentially.

US President-Elect Joe Biden receiving his vaccination against COVID-19
Leaders around the world, including US President-elect Joe Biden, lead by example taking COVID-19 vaccines Image: Tom Brenner/REUTERS

Instead, my mother remains convinced that her DNA might be irreparably altered if she gets vaccinated, and that if combating a virus were so easy, there would be no HIV/AIDS left in the world.

This misled comparison between COVID-19 and AIDS struck me as being in poor taste when it first was uttered at this year’s family Christmas lunch in South Africa — the country with the highest global percentage of HIV-positive citizens. 

Read more: COVID vaccines likely effective against new variants, say health experts

Take my breath away

I think of myself as a defender of freedom of speech and opinion even when it comes to my worst enemy, and even if that's to my detriment. But when it's a matter of life and death, where does this defense of such democratic values begin — and, more importantly, where should it end? When our collective health is at stake, where do individual actions begin to count as transgressions?

Should I be the one to drag my mother to her doctor to make sure she gets her COVID-19 vaccine? Or should I tell her that I had "told her so" when there is no ventilator left for her at the ICU? And is it even fair for me to highlight her views without giving her the opportunity to defend herself? Or are some views simply not defensible?

Perhaps we should — much like politics and religion — simply add COVID-19 to the list of subjects that are not to be discussed at the holiday dinner table — even though the voices we might be ultimately silencing could be our own.

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson