Vaccination rates in Guatemala are among the lowest in the Americas, and misinformation plays a key role. From their pulpits, some religious leaders spread messages against the use of masks and the efficacy of vaccines.
ESCUINTLA, GUATEMALA — One year since the vaccination campaign against COVID-19 began in Guatemala, only 45% of the population over 12 years old has been fully vaccinated and 15% have received a booster.
The figures are far from the projections the National Vaccination Plan presented in February 2021, with the aim to vaccinate the country's entire adult population within six months.
Specialists assure that the lack of information campaigns by the government, the late and questioned purchase of vaccines, as well as their slow distribution have contributed to already widespread misinformation. Misinformation that circulates uncontrollably on social networks, as well as through the messages of some religious leaders. According to what the Ministry of Health told Agencia Ocote, some religious speeches have 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 the reasons 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 be vaccinated, or that getting vaccinated is an act of poor faith, with 27% of people saying that religious leaders in their community do not want them to get vaccinated.
This is not a new phenomenon. Religious leaders started 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 walked from his church down the streets, not complying with the curfew. Videos are also circulating on social networks in which Sapalú assures that masks do not protect.
In Villa Nueva, a district of Guatemala City, Pastor Marco Antonio Díaz has invited people not to get vaccinated. He says he distrusts the manufacturing process. In his religious services, which have been shared on social networks, he has assured that the vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses. He 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 prohibited by the Guatemalan Ministry of Health.
In Nueva Concepción, Escuintla, south of Guatemala City, Víctor Morales, a pastor and religious leader of the evangelical church El Buen Samaritano, has invited his congregation to lose their fear of COVID-19 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 is preaching.
Morales oversees a church in Nueva Concepción, a municipality 17 kilometers from Tiquisate, and today was invited 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 distance people from their God and that COVID-19 offers the opportunity to get closer to the Church.
Pastor Victor Morales has invited his congregation to lose their fear of COVID-19
Hours before the service, Morales explained why he does not wear a mask, why he is not vaccinated, and why he shares this message with his congregation.
“The word of God says that no harm will come to you, no plague will touch your dwelling… A mask won’t defend us from a quetzal; only the blood that Jesus shed can defend us and protect us from this destructive disease,” argues the pastor.
Only 45% of people over 12 years old are fully vaccinated in Guatemala.
Lack of trust
He has maintained this conviction since the beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, when the government of Alejandro Giammattei closed the borders of Guatemala and established a lockdown to avoid contagion. His first reaction, he remembers, was to pray.
“The mask is used by those who want to use it. I tell them: 'How can they believe that we are going to be infected here, in the church, before the presence of our Lord?' It is illogical. I have 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 for it, if they want to. I don't influence them," he says. Even so, he argues that God's protection is sufficient and that is why he himself has not been vaccinated.
Before his family, his posture was that of a “warrior without armor”. “My wife and my children told me to close the church. I told them that if they were afraid they shouldn’t come. ‘Stay in the house, you bunch of scaredy-cats,’ I told them.”
A church that refuses to close
He shrugs when questioned about the results of scientific studies that refute his arguments. “If someone gets the disease and dies, it is at the time God decided. People die even if they are vaccinated,” he argues, despite worldwide evidence that proves the effectiveness of vaccines to reduce 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 into the pandemic, the pastor has never closed his church and has not stopped giving his services. His argument is that God is going to hold him accountable if he does not continue to preach.
If someone gets the disease and dies, it is at the time God decided.
The church has a TV channel that has been operating for a decade. He also broadcasts all his messages on Facebook. But he says that many people in his congregation do not 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 beginning of the pandemic prohibited religious events.
“I was not going to close the church with my hands. If the police or the authorities came and locked it up, well, that was another story. But I wasn't going to be the one closing it. At first, there were 15 of us. Then, there were about 50, we stayed here to sleep during curfews and left the next day,” he says with a laugh.
More on 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 leading pastor.
He says the pastors of all six churches share his conviction that divine protection is what is needed to face the pandemic.
Some media reports said pastors and evangelists from Morales' church, under his leadership, had established checkpoints on the road to Nueva Concepción. They allegedly stopped vehicles circulating through the municipality to urge people not to get vaccinated or wear a mask.
Morales assures that this is false: "We urged them to have faith in God," he says.
Before the beginning 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 Ocote, part of the special series 'Those who are not vaccinated in Central America and Mexico', promoted by members of the media alliance Otras Miradas.
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