Fear, Faith and Coronavirus

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As we continue to move out of lockdown, it is important that we have an honest conversation about fear and faith as we move into this next phase of the global pandemic. COVID-19 is likely to be with us for some time to come.  We need to be ready for the long game and as Lisa McNally, the Director of Public Health in Sandwell recently explained on our After-Eight Facebook event, the “new normal” is all about our mindset.

There is a lot of fear around and that is very understandable, indeed, as we have also talked about, fear is an appropriate response to the threat of a deadly enemy. COVID-19 is a dangerous and deadly enemy, it causes disruption, harm, suffering and death. We should take it seriously. However, at the same time, we must be careful not to let fear lead to a paranoia that overwhelms us and incapacitates us. 

So, as schools, offices, churches and other places begin to re-open, how do we as people of faith respond in a responsible way to COVID-19 without fear over-whelming us.

First of all, it is important to be alert to the facts.  First of all, we know that COVID-19 can lead to hospitalisation and death. We know that particular groups of people are at a greater risk.  It seems that those over 70, particularly men are at significant risk. However,

“COVID-19 is not just hazardous for elderly people, it is extremely dangerous for people in their mid-fifties, sixties and seventies,”[1]

Underlying health conditions are an important factor too. This helps us to identify the level of risk, not just to us but to our friends, neighbours and families should we catch the illness and come into contact with them.

This also helps us to avoid the mistake that conspiracy theorists have made in jumping on figures suggesting that only 6% of deaths are without co-morbidity. The risk has always been particularly acute where other heath factors are at play but a lot of our population have other health factors and that is likely to be especially true in a church context where there is a lot of contact with vulnerable people.

It also helps us to read positive reports wisely. There have been a number of articles recently suggesting that countries experiencing an apparent second wave are seeing cases rise but not hospitalisation or morbidity. Some have jumped on this to suggest that the virus is mutating and losing strength. However, before we jump to conclusions, it is worth remembering that proportionally there are a greater number of cases among young people and whilst a lot of measures have been lifted, shielding and social distancing are still in place. Given that is so, it is perhaps no surprise to see death tolls remain low. Indeed, this might provide a helpful case study of why we saw high mortality in the early stages as we failed to get a grip on the risk to care homes.

The point is that there is a risk to the elderly and vulnerable but that it is possible if we show wisdom and heed advice to start to get out and about, to go to work, to drop the kids off at school and to attend church.  We must however continue to be alert to the need to protect the vulnerable.

So, we should be able to start to get on with many of our normal activities even if there is a newness to that normality and as Christians we can overcome fear with faith. However, it is important to recognise what exactly the shape of that faith is and what it isn’t.

Faith is not the belief that you are supernaturally protected from catching the disease. God has placed us in the world and so we expect to face suffering just like anyone else. Christians get ill and die. Christians have got ill with Coronavirus and Christians have died.  Sadly there have been high incidents where churches have been reckless and rushed against advice to open without appropriate risk management and health and safety measures.

Faith does include the belief that whilst God will not take us out of the danger zone, he will be with us through it. It means we have confidence that we can get through to the other side. I do not need to fear illness and death. Should I personally experience a severe version of the illness, even if that leads to death, I have hope that there is resurrection life beyond the grave.  So, I do not need to be paralysed. COVID-19 is not the worst thing that could happen to me. Jesus says:

“Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.[2]

However, faith does not remove my responsibility to love my neighbour.  I know that it is tempting to say “look, if I catch the illness, I am ready to meet my maker” but that misses the following points.

  • Whether or not I die, the illness will result in me needing to be cared for, potentially through hospitalisation.
  • I don’t want to cause extra pain and grief to friends and family who will not wish to see me suffer and indeed may have to experience the isolation of not being able to visit. There are few sadder sights than that of people who were robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one.
  • I may risk infecting someone who does not have the same peace and hope that I have.
  • Catching the illness and being out of action may call me away from my calling to be there for others, to love them practically and to witness to them.

So, fear should be replaced by responsible faith. I trust God for my eternal destiny and so I do not need to be anxious about COVID-19 for myself. However, I still want to be responsible and love others.  In our context I believe this means

  1. Follow local guidance, especially if there is a local lockdown in place or a risk of one coming into force.
  2. Keep observing social distancing measures
  3. Wear face-masks indoors -at the shops, on public transport and when attending church
  4. Don’t come to church or visit others if you are showing symptoms such as a temperature or cough (ere on the side of caution -better to stay home and discover you were not infected than to go out and infect others)
  5. Wash your hands for 20 seconds regularly
  6. Do come to church if you are well and not in an at risk/shielding category.
  7. Remember the importance of fellowship and care. We love our neighbours by not risking their health but we also love them by looking after one another -phone calls, socially distanced conversations, dropping off food to those who struggling etc

We do not need to fear because we have hope. Winter is coming and there will be particular risks because of that but #SummerIsStillComing -we look forward to the day when we are through this but even more to the day when God puts all things right and makes everything new.

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02483-2

[2] Matthew 10:28.