COVID-19 anxiety and church life

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When I put together my initial advice on church risk management as we came out of lockdown, I advised that we needed to divide the risks into those driven by objective measures – how likely is our church to become the cause of a COVID-19 outbreak leading to hospitalisations – and subjective measures, how do people perceive the decisions we make and the danger caused.

The latter is important because even if objectively there’s a low risk of our gatherings causing life threatening situations and fuelling the pandemic, if people in the congregation and community think that they will, then this is likely to break down trust and so hinder our ability to be good witnesses, to pastorally care for people and to gather the flock. 

So, as we well as tracking COVID cases, hospital admissions and deaths, we need to find out how people are feeling and what they are thinking at any given time. I’ve recently done one of my mini-surveys on twitter to gauge the mood of those who follow me. I would encourage you to do something similar but specific to your church context -and even to find ways of surveying the community around you.

Here’s what came back from my survey. I asked four questions designed to give a feel for how anxious people are about the current and short term situation.  First, I asked how anxious people were about COVID.

As you can see, the majority of respondents were either somewhat anxious or not very. This suggests that we are not in a situation where people in general are extremely fearful, though there are still a number saying that they remain extremely anxious. Note also that those who are not/not very anxious may include those who believe cases will rise significantly but don’t see this as cause for concern.

The breakdown is very similar when we ask people whether they are anxious about catching COVID and suffering negatively from it themselves. However, notice that at this stage we were not registering anyone as “very anxious” for themselves. I suspect therefore that concern is more about two things.

  1. The risk to others, that an increase in COVID cases might lead to a vulnerable loved one falling ill
  2. The risk to wider life. I may for example believe that vaccination has substantially reduced the risk of people getting sick and dying but may be concerned that an increase in cases will panic the government into bringing in a fourth lockdown.  I suspect that many are more anxious about the social, emotional and economic impact of a fourth lockdown than they are about ending up on ICU.

The third question bears out that hypothesis with 50% saying that they were either very or somewhat anxious about a loved one becoming seriously ill and this time no-one clicking to say that they were not at all anxious. 

Finally, I asked the question “Are you still wearing a face-mask indoors in public places.” It’s worth noting here that Facemask wearing remains compulsory on London transport, in Scotland and in Wales. So, my focus here has to be specifically on England.  37.2% are wearing face masks in all such contexts though 39.6% are deciding based on context: is the place crowded, are others wearing masks, am I being asked to? Incidentally that’s the current guidance from the Chief Medical Officer. Just under a quarter of those surveyed said that they are not/no longer wearing face masks.

This has important implications for church life.  I’ve mentioned before that we can assume that those wishing to wear masks, or considering staying away are doing so because they are vulnerable/anxious.  We may mistakenly then think we’ve provided for their needs by offering a cordoned off area where COVID measures are followed.  However, if they see a room where no measures are in place then it won’t matter that they are able to protect themselves. They’ll still see a risk to people they care about and they’ll still see a risk of us losing the freedoms we’ve only recently regained.

There is of course a balancing act here because we don’t want decisions to be made out of fear. We want to keep modelling love based decision making and there is a crucial place for leading not just following.  Additionally, I suspect that perceptions are going to continue to change and evolve over the coming months as well. These will depend upon what happens in terms of cases and hospitalisations. Recent dire warnings in that regard are affecting the mood. However, if, as we saw in the summer, case numbers and admissions remain well below those worst case scenarios then people will become increasingly confident about a return to normal life.

My personal hunch is that we are not going to see huge case numbers through the Autumn and winter. The reason for that is that vaccines do work and so primarily what we are seeing now is occasional spiking in the numbers of under 15s testing positive. That age group is much less likely to experience serious illness.  Whilst there has been some waning reported in vaccine efficacy over time, it still seems to offer high levels of protection and booster jabs are being rolled out. Further we are likely to see greater numbers of children acquire immunity through vaccination or natural infection over the next few months.

Additionally I think that there are other limiting factors on cases increasing. When we hit a certain threshold of cases then exponential growth is cancelled out by the number of people forced to self isolated and the public voluntarily amending behaviour.  The result is that there is probably a ceiling of daily cases at around 50,000 cases (though it could be higher or lower).

James Ward who has been modelling possible scenarios throughout the pandemic and has developed a reputation for reliability in this area has suggested that we should not be too worried about the next few months but that there could be challenges in the new year. Here’s his current model. 

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https://twitter.com/JamesWard73/status/1442759784411893760/photo/1

His view is that we have not yet reached a situation where the pandemic is over and COVID is endemic/in a state of equilibrium, though we are transition towards it.

On that basis I expect to see growing confidence but a residual level of caution and that’s probably no bad thing.  What I’d encourage churches to do is in line with that to gradually and carefully reduce measures in place.  Perhaps the next step is to only ask people to wear masks if there are others sitting around them who ask them to.  As we reduce mask wearing and social distancing it would probably be helpful to ask people to sign in and confirm that they are either vaccinated or have recently had a negative test.  

It remains my view that we should allow for more space in our buildings for some time to come. If we used to assume that 80% capacity required us to add another service then we probably need to be ready to do that if we are getting 60-70% capacity. It means that going into Christmas season we shouldn’t be getting nostalgic for those standing room only carol services. If you ran one carol service pre-COVID put on two this year (and so on).  It may be worth using a booking system for such special events. 

The route back to normality in church life will need to be taken cautiously. It will mean that we will have to lift some measures and sometimes that will come with a level of reluctance and nervousness from the congregation but if we can keep showing that we are acting responsibly and in line with advice then it should be possible.