Pandemic Ponderings

of the General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley

December 6, 2021


Dear Friends,


Each year the Merriam Webster dictionary announces its “Word of the Year.” This designation is based on what word is being looked up the most. The 2020 word of the year was “pandemic” when we were all scrambling for more information on what was happening in our global community and what the effects of this wide-spread public health emergency would be. Remember, that was while we were just learning what a pandemic even was and, at that point, vaccines were not available so they weren’t really our focus yet. In 2021 vaccines began to be available and sparked not only a great deal of interest but, also, as it turned out, a great deal of controversy. The 2021 “Word of the Year,” has been announced as “Vaccine.” When several states, and the Federal Government itself, began to mandate vaccines, the controversy, and the interest in the word, escalated quickly.


This from Merriam Webster: “In everyday use, words are useful tools that communicate assertions, ideas, aspirations, and uncertainties. But they can also become vehicles for ideological conflict.


This is what happened to vaccine in 2021. The promising medical solution to the pandemic that upended our lives in 2020 also became a political argument and source of division. The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine.


Hopes for cures and treatments of COVID-19 began as soon as the disease began to spread. Research into a new kind of vaccine containing messenger RNA, or mRNA, genetic material rather than an inactivated form of the virus was accelerated. After decades of studies conducted for application to diseases such as influenza, Ebola, and rabies, this new type of mRNA vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus was rapidly developed, tested, and manufactured for broad use, with the first doses being administered in the U.S. in December 2020.

The use of a vaccine that triggers an immune response in an entirely new way required that Merriam-Webster revise and expand its entry for the word, which the company did in May. The definition, which formerly read “a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease,” was replaced with the following;


  • 1 : a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body’s immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease: such as
  • a : an antigenic preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated (see ATTENUATED sense 2) pathogenic agent (such as a bacterium or virus) or one of its components or products (such as a protein or toxin)
  • b : a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein)


Interest in the definition of this word was intense in the past year; lookups for vaccine increased 601% year-over-year from 2020. But interest in the word has been high since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with much discussion of the funding, development, testing, and ultimate distribution of the vaccines occurring in 2020. The prominence of the word vaccine in our lives in this era becomes even more starkly clear when we compare 2021 to 2019, a period in which lookups for the word increased 1048%.


The word vaccine was about much more than medicine in 2021. For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic. But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more.

Few words can express so much about one moment in time.”


Why do I even bring this up? I bring it up to highlight a few items pertinent to the faith we have received from our reformed forebears and which apply to today’s moment:


  • What science has been able to do over the last two years is brilliant and to Presbyterians, steeped in the tradition that God is sovereign over all things – seen and unseen –it is an occasion for great awe and thanksgiving. They had to change the very definition of the word vaccine, for Heaven’s sake! Jesus said that he came that we would have life and have it abundantly and we have certainly witnessed this promise coming to pass over the past two years! We pause to rejoice and give thanks to our ever creative, faithful, and gracious God!
  • As Presbyterians we are also steeped in a deep theology of community. Being vaccinated against this virus IS a personal choice and yet, as Presbyterians, we must factor into all our personal choices the effect of those decisions on the common good. COVID 19 and its variants pose a grave public risk, over-running our health care facilities and exposing innocent individuals to illness and death. Sadly, it is still the unvaccinated that account for 98% of those who are being hospitalized and dying.
  • Finally, once again we come face to face with deeper issues of justice regarding allocation of resources, equity in distribution and health care, nation-centered decisions in the face global need. This is a pandemic the whole globe is in together and we will only get out of it together.


There are a couple of other words that are floating around in this Advent season. Words far more potent even than vaccine. They are hope and peace so far in our journey to the manger. We as Christians, live in a constant state of hope, because the Creator of the Universe is as close as a baby in our arms and has never stopped being with us and for us. And we seek even more diligently to foster peace in this divided world because the Prince of Peace bids us do so and makes a way where there is no way.


As ever in prayer,


Sue Westfall

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