Polish priest on low vaccine rates in community: ‘No rational argument can persuade those opposed’

Anti-abortion views and lack of government trust cited among reasons for low uptake from eastern Europeans

Fr Stanislaus Hajkowski: refers his congregation to Vatican statement that says where no alternative is available, it is ‘morally acceptable’ to receive mRNA vaccines. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Fr Stanislaus Hajkowski: refers his congregation to Vatican statement that says where no alternative is available, it is ‘morally acceptable’ to receive mRNA vaccines. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Every Sunday, Fr Stanislaus Hajkowski has about 300 members from Poland and other eastern European countries in his congregation at St Audeon’s in the heart of the Liberties, in Dublin.

So far, thankfully, he has not heard of deaths in the Polish community from Covid-19, though the vaccination rates amongst them is far lower than the national average.

“A number of people were infected, but they recovered. I didn’t hear of any deaths. In Ireland, we have a young population. Most would be in the early-20s to 40s age group,” said the co-ordinator of the Polish chaplaincy.

Fr Hajkowski says he has “been shouted” at by some of his fellow Poles when he has encouraged them to take the Covid-19 vaccine, or to abide by Church and State restrictions.

“There are some emotionally imbalanced people in every community,” he said, though they are a minority: “Some may come to provoke me, but a majority understand.”

Vaccination rates in eastern Europe lag far behind the Irish performance. Just 53.9 per cent of Poles are fully vaccinated. Vaccination rates in Croatia are at 47.7 per cent, 63.4 per cent in Lithuania, 46.1 per cent Slovakia, and it goes on.

Figures from the Health Service Executive this week show that vaccine uptake rates among those from central and eastern Europe living in Ireland are much, much lower.

More than a quarter of those in intensive care beds in September and October were not born in Ireland and 57 per cent of them were not vaccinated at all, or just partially vaccinated, said HSE director general Paul Reid.

There is, Fr Hajkowski said, “no rational argument” that will persuade those in his community who are steadfast in their opposition to vaccines, or other mitigating measures.

Different rules

His congregation in St Audeon’s accept the need for restrictions, though they query why there are differences between the rules in Poland and Ireland: “Generally, there is little opposition. The rule is ‘use your reason’.”

Some Poles hold strong anti-abortion views and fear that some of the vaccines may have been produced using cell lines from aborted foetuses in research and production.

Where they do, he refers them to a Vatican statement from December last year, which stated that, where no alternative is available, it is “morally acceptable” to receive such vaccines.

Since last year, it has been clarified that mRNA vaccines, such as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, are synthetic and do not use foetal cell lines in their production.

A replica cell line from a foetus aborted in 1973 was used to develop the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine. However, the vaccine itself does not contain foetal cells.

The Vatican document also pointed out that “from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good.”

Suspicious

Some eastern Europeans, for good reason, have had reason to be suspicious of government-led vaccination programmes in their home countries during the Communist era, he said.

Fr Hajkowski also pointed out that “many eastern Europeans live close to nature and, for centuries, developed traditional medicines to deal with disease.”

Therefore, “they have been left to their own devices” by authorities. “It’s not the first time they have had to deal with diseases or viruses, after all,” he said, “different countries, different norms and procedures”.

Meanwhile, the shadow left by often highly-targeted disinformation and fake news on social media has loomed large over the eastern European community in Ireland.

Like many others in the State, many Polish people are worried about the psychological effect of lockdowns on children, believing that “the lockdowns are more damaging to children than the virus”, he said.

The 2016 census found that there were just more than 122,500 Poles in Ireland, the largest non-Irish population group, though Fr Hajkowski believes they now number 150,000, with 70,000 or so living in the greater Dublin area.