Sunday, November 28

In the Netherlands, doctors work to vaccinate conservative Protestants

From his office in Urk, a small isolated and very religious fishing town in the north of the Netherlands, Dr. Wilco Bloed is trying to convince those who resist the coronavirus vaccine, convinced that God is on their side.

Only about a third of residents have been vaccinated in this city known for its historic opposition to vaccination. Urk, 20,000 inhabitants, is nestled in the heart of the “Bijbelgordel”, the belt of the Bible, an expression which designates conservative Protestant localities in the country.

Faced with the upsurge in the number of Covid-19 cases, reaching records at the national level, Urk’s doctors have launched their own vaccination campaign in a final attempt to convince the refractory.

Doctors in the city offer residents to vaccinate themselves, in their practice, a familiar place, rather than in a vaccination center.

Since the initiative began in October, the vaccination rate has climbed to 35% but this figure remains well below the national rate among adults in the Netherlands of around 84.7%.

“The aversion to vaccination was quite great,” concedes Wilco Bloed, who settled in Urk 15 years ago.

“It is true that the people of Urk can be quite stubborn,” he says.

– “Providence divine” –

Urk, which has nearly 20 bell towers, was the starting point in January of the worst riots in decades in the Netherlands, sparked by the implementation of a national curfew against the virus.

Then clashes took place with journalists in front of churches who continued to organize masses despite the restrictions. Last weekend, the city was the scene of new unrest, however far beyond the clashes in Rotterdam or The Hague.

Seventy years ago Urk was still an island. Since then, it has been reattached to the mainland after huge drainage projects but has kept its island mentality.

“If the rest of the Netherlands does one thing, Urk does the other,” says Jacob, 21, who came to fish in the harbor with a friend.

Some believe that getting the vaccine is part of God’s will and two years ago Urk had a measles epidemic.

“On the one hand, the Bible says that we can take precautions. We can therefore prepare for certain crises” such as the coronavirus, says Alwin Uitslag, reverend of the Dutch Reformed Church in Urk.

“On the other hand, it is said that vaccination is not authorized because you intervene in divine providence,” he adds to AFP.

– Religion, but not only –

Alwin Uitslag describes his Church as “strict”, with two religious services on Sundays, when shops are closed and work is prohibited. Women must wear dresses and put on a headscarf.

But the choice to be vaccinated against the coronavirus rests with the “individual conscience” of the people, estimates the reverend, without wanting to specify if he himself is vaccinated.

Science and religion do not always mix well, but the doctors and the reverends of Urk try to find together the best way forward.

Even if in the end, religion remains “in fact a very small part” of the problem, observes Wilco Bloed.

The fear of side effects, the isolation of Urk – far from the government in The Hague -, disinformation and a young population “largely” explain the low vaccination rate, analyzes the doctor.

The results of the local vaccination campaign, carried out with the Dutch health authority (GGD) and the municipality, are encouraging, although much remains to be done.

“In the first week and a half, the same number of injections were given as what the GGD had done in four weeks previously, although we are seeing that number slow down a bit,” says Mr Bloed.

The doctor is also a member of the Reformed Church, that does not prevent him from advocating vaccination: “Look, I am also a Christian. And yes, we do not have to agree on everything”.

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