As we re-open church buildings we need to be transparent about risk

It is important that as we begin taking those baby steps to re-opening our church buildings that we are open and honest with each other about what the risks are. We should not be gung-ho, rushing in and saying “It is back to normal. There are no risks.”

There are always risks involved with organising a gathering or event and indeed, our church have always provided risk assessments to ensure that we have identified dangers and taken steps to mitigate them. There is a risk to gatherings associated with COVID-19 and similarly, we have produced a detailed risk assessment and mitigation plan for this too. 

This is generally true as society begins to return to normal.  COVID-19 is still with us and so any trip to the shops, attendance at work or school, visit to the cinema or meal out will entail some risk. However, it is important that we do not get the risk out of proportion.  Recent ONS data suggests that at any given time, 1 in 1700 people will have the virus.  Now, the ratios will be higher in some places such as hospitals and the contact risk higher in crowded places but this means that risks will be lower in other settings. It is important that when calculating the risk from COVID-19 to ourselves and to others that we compare that risk to the risks from other things.

One such other risk is that we become so paralysed with fear as we hear rumours and reports that we become unable, individually or as churches to come out of lockdown. As I have said elsewhere, whilst lockdown may have been inevitable and necessary, self-isolation itself carried huge risks to people’s emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. 

So, one way in which we handle the risks with openness and transparency is by being careful about how we react to and share news stories.  Let me give you a couple of examples:

The church in Singapore and the lady who got Coronavirus from sitting on someone else’s seat

This story was reported on the BBC site. A couple from Wuhan in China arrived in Singapore and went to church. Later, some Singaporeans contracted COVID-19 and it was uncertain where they had caught it from. However, careful track and trace identified that they had attended the same church service as the couple from Wuhan.

So far, so good. However, it is important that we don’t skim read the article and misread it.  I’ve overheard conversations suggesting that this was a mass outbreak, however, read carefully and you realise that this is a report about three cases with two people present at the church service the couple attended. As the article reports

“Within a few days, investigators had spoken to no fewer than 191 members of the church and had found out that 142 of them had been there that Sunday. They quickly established that two of the Singaporeans who became infected had been at the same service as the Chinese couple.”

It is important to emphasise that 142 people had been present at the service that Sunday but only two had contracted the virus around about that time. Furthermore, we have identified a definite correlation but this this is not the same as causation.

Now we move on to the woman not at that service itself, though she had attended later on.

Investigators resorted to going through the CCTV recordings made at the church that Sunday to search for clues. And they stumbled across something completely unexpected – the woman who’d attended the later service, after the Chinese couple had left, had sat in the seats they had used several hours earlier.

I must admit that as I read this paragraph, something struck me as a little odd. It read less like something you would find on a reputable website like the BBC’s and more like one of those clickbait articles that do the rounds on the internet. It certainly did not read as a scientific report. This caused me to pause for a moment.  The consensus view is that COVID-19 can be passed by particles from the eyes, mouth or nose through coughing, speaking and sneezing, just like the common cold. Additionally, and again similar to colds and flus, you can transfer the virus nose to hand, hand to nose. That’s why we are encouraged to keep our hands clean and not shake hands with others.

Therefore, the couple would have had to sit down in the seats but not only that, to have touched their face and then the seat and presumably for a significant amount of time to cause the virus to transfer. The woman coming later would have had to do the same. It is possible that this happened but not definite. It feels to me like there are some gaps in the evidence. We have one of those amazing correlations but no proven cause.

Furthermore, the article assumes that the three people must have caught the virus from the two people from Wuhan. However, we are not told about who else they may have been in contact with who could have been symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers.  When I was ill with COVID-19, I reflected back and noted that there were 2 or three people who I’d met in the previous week who could have passed the virus on. I had also been to the shops and to the barbers.  It would be very unwise of me to claim I knew definitively where I got the illness from.

The purpose of Track and Trace is to identify people who have been in contact with someone known to have the virus. It is in order to enable public health authorities to warn others to take precautions to prevent further spread. I would be highly cautious about using the system to give definitive answers about root cause.

Over the past few weeks, I have read a number of articles warning about the dangers of churches becoming super-spreaders of the virus.  It is important that we read these carefully and observe the risks that they describe. There is no place for complacency but also we should be carefully not to misread and panic. The risk is that we can do that by spreading articles and forgetting that most people read headlines not detail when they see something come up on their Twitter or Facebook feed.

In one example, the article warned about churches as sources of infection by going on to describe the tragic circumstances where a teenage girl caught the virus and died.  However, the important detail in the article is that her mum had sent her to a “COVID-19 party”, something I guess akin to a Chicken-pox party where the aim was to catch the illness, presumably in the belief it would get it out of the way and create herd immunity. Sadly, this young girl had a damaged immune system/ Furthermore, her mum delayed getting profession medical attention for her daughter.

In another example, the virus had spread quickly through a staff and leadership team as they began working together and meeting together, not through the Sunday meeting.

It is important that we stick with the Government advice, encouraging people to socially distance, to wear masks and to wash their hands on entry and exit.  Those factors reduce the risk of contracting the virus.  If we do those things, the risks are likely to be low and people should be safe to attend church services.

This article has focused primarily on risk transparency meaning that we can re-assure those who are nervous about returning to church. In a later article I will talk about how risk transparency ensures that we do not allow for complacency.

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