Concluding Corona Comments
1. The value of humility
A characteristic of our age is the expression of strong opinions in a manner that is not conducive to intelligent dialogue. Social media, followed increasingly by conventional media, encourages shouting rather than listening, polarisation rather than consensus and the positioning of those with whom we disagree as morally suspect enemies. These tendencies have not been helpful in working out the best response to the virus.
Way back in April, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Paul Collier observed,
In a world that has inevitably become too complex to be adequately captured in models, a world of both “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”, the most sensible response to the question “what should we do?” is “I don’t know”.
Of course, national leaders are not permitted to say, “I don’t know.” We expect them to know, or at least act as though they do. But as Collier explains,
At the onset of this crisis, we could not put probabilities on which forms of social distancing would best limit its spread because we’d never done it before. We didn’t know how people would alter their behaviour in response to the appeal to “save the NHS”. We didn’t even know whether reducing the spread was desirable: perhaps fewer deaths now would come at the cost of more next winter. And these were just the known unknowns. With a disruption as big as this, unknown unknowns are also lurking. We have no experience of the material and economic repercussions from shutdowns of this nature and their aftermath in a modern economy, and no meaningful way of assigning probabilities; nor of how people’s behaviour will evolve.
Eight months on and a lot of those unknowns remain unknown. Yes, we know more now about the virus than we did in April, but as the response to the latest increase in cases in the UK demonstrates, there is still a lot we do not know. One thing we do know is that in light of our lack of knowing it is wise to show some humility.
2. The dangers of idolatry
In his book Counterfeit Gods Tim Keller writes,
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There is no hope!”
Keller is writing about politics but that paragraph could just as well be applied to how in the UK we regard the NHS. It can feel as if the NHS is the one national institution that is beyond criticism and for which all else must be sacrificed.
One of the problems with this devotion to the NHS is the impossible expectations it places upon those who work within it.
A hospital doctor told me,
Senior clinicians and nurses who have worked for decades say this is like nothing before experienced. There is such a lot of distress voiced - incredibly sick patients, unpredictable clinical trajectory (this disease continues to turn on a sixpence), huge sense of responsibility, playing the role of surrogate family members. A lot of tears and fear for January. These are highly committed, highly competent people.
A recent study suggested that 40% of ITU staff meet the criteria for PTSD. This is something like four times higher than amongst troops in the gulf war.
This toll on medical staff is shocking but is perhaps the inevitable consequence of the constant messaging we have received telling us that ‘our wonderful NHS’ will always save all our lives. No institution, far less any individual, can sustain that level of expectation. If the NHS becomes our functional saviour – our counterfeit god – we are setting ourselves up for a fall. Not only is it impossible for the NHS to guarantee all of us permanent good health and never-ending life but by placing that kind of burden on the institution we risk burning out the people responsible for keeping it operating. We need a more substantial God than that.
3. Changing attitudes to death
It is fascinating to ask those old enough to remember 1968 or 1957 how they handled the pandemics of those years and see the blank looks that question generates. Despite those pandemics claiming more lives than has Covid-19 so far no one seems to remember them because life continued as normal – no lockdowns, no facemasks, no social distancing, no panic. Our response has been very different this time around. Part of the reason for that must be the ‘unknowns’ of this virus – when it first struck we didn’t know if it might be the ‘big one’, a virus that might take huge numbers of lives. It now seems clearer that this is not the case but we remain very nervous about death and with a strangely distorted perception of its realities.
As has often been pointed out, the average age of death with Covid is almost the same, or even older, than average life expectancy (life expectancy in the UK, 2017-19, was for men 79.4 years, and for women 83.1 years. Average age of death with covid seems to be around 82-83 years.). So far 67,000 people have died in the UK within 28 days of a positive test for the virus. This is a large number but should be measured against the total number we would expect to die anyway: in 2019 530,841 people died in England & Wales. (By way of comparison, it is also worth bearing in mind that last year in England & Wales there were 207,384 abortions.)
All this is sociologically interesting but it clearly prompts theological considerations too. Positively, we might see evidence that we have become more caring. We are not so willing as perhaps we once were simply to allow those in their 80s & 90s to be carried off by disease. Less positively we might see this trend as a reflection of our increased sense that this life ‘is all there is’. Without confidence in God and the promise of life beyond the grave, those who have ‘eternity set in their hearts’ (Eccl. 3:11) will want to hold onto life for as long as possible.
These three observations provide opportunities and challenges for us in the months ahead. Christ’s church should herself display humility (‘Brothers, we are not epidemiologists’), yet needs also to speak with a prophetic voice that will at times provoke opposition. To call people from idolatry and fear and to put their trust in the living God is to invite scorn and anger – as well as a joyful response in some. But isn’t that the message of Christmas? As we end one year and prepare for another we do so proclaiming ‘the God of glory and Lord of love’. Virus or no virus, that doesn’t change.