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Pandemic Responses

Why have we responded to covid in a way quite different than has been the case with previous pandemics? Is it because of science: that we now know more about how viruses spread? Is it because of geopolitics and economics: that globalisation means the world is far more connected? Or is it because of culture: that the way we feel about sickness and death has changed?

Last month Kristine Nethers posted on how the Spanish flu of 1918 affected churches in the US. I asked Kristine if she could dig up any corresponding data for what happened in the UK. This is what she found:

At the onset of my research on British church responses to the Spanish Flu, I would have assumed that newspaper articles and church accounts would have revealed similar responses to what I had discovered in the U.S. My initial research did not produce many primary sources on British church responses, which was surprising. (There are a few mentions, such as here.)

The more I researched, it was fascinating to see how press coverage in 1918-1919 seemed to encourage British people towards a resilient and stoic approach to the Spanish Flu (and not towards publishing the efforts to mitigate the disease by closures, masks, etc.). The motive behind the silence seemed to indicate that the British government and sympathetic newspapers did not want to cause alarm in the British people, nor advertise home front weakness to other nations during the war, nor decrease public morale even further as the first wave hit in May 1918. (The workings of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” campaign were under way!)

Even during the second wave during the winter of 1918, the press accounts seemed to downplay the pandemic. As one researcher put it, “Yet for all the destruction wrought by the Spanish flu, stoicism seems to have been the characteristic response even during the later waves of the pandemic. ‘Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world’, commented The Times in December 1918, ‘[and] never, perhaps, has a plague been more stoically accepted’’.” His research, linked here, is helpful in understanding the larger context of British people and the media response in that time.

Therefore, I could find little primary evidence of how British churches responded. While newspapers and church records did mention closures, there does seem to be a nonchalant tone towards responding to the pandemic.

What was the reason for this nonchalance? It certainly seems to be a rather different attitude to what we are currently experiencing, despite Spanish flu being far more deadly than the coronavirus. Kristine goes on,

I can surmise why the British and American approaches are different based on the context. American involvement in WWI was far less and deaths and casualties were far fewer per capita than the UK. After four years of a war it makes sense that British people were numb emotionally.

That is a fascinating observation – that the trauma of war in some way inured the British against the horrors of the pandemic. As Kristine observes, “The research does show the psychological response of a ‘survivor-mode’ after prolonged stress, trauma or crisis.”

This might suggest that one of the reasons we have taken extreme measures in response to the current pandemic is because we have not been hardened by previous trauma in the way our ancestors were a century ago. Despite terrorist attacks and long-running conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq the reality is that we have enjoyed a longer period of peace than any previous generation. At the same time we have experienced the most extraordinary improvements in public health. We rarely see death in the way previous generations did. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that this has made us far more sensitive to threats to our health and peace. (A version of Moynihan’s Law.)

Perhaps this also helps explain why we seem to be more sensitive to ‘unusual’ causes of death, like the coronavirus. It is striking that the winters of 1999/00 and 2014/15 saw excess deaths in numbers not dissimilar to those we have experienced over the course of the pandemic, yet those deaths caused no public alarm and no draconian interventions by government.

What can we learn from this? At least four things stand out for me:

1. That we can be thankful for not having lived through a war.

2. That the response to our current pandemic is driven by cultural factors as well as scientific ones.

3. That experiencing this trauma might harden us in the face of future ones. Kristine comments that at her church, “I can see a bit of that survivor-mode take effect and I do think it’s important for church leaders to notice that in themselves and in their congregations during this time.” Some more stoicism wouldn’t go amiss but we surely wouldn’t want to become indifferent to death and suffering.

4. That pastors have a responsibility to teach about death. It is probably only in church that people are likely to regularly hear the message, “You are going to die.” This is a message we need to hear: because it is true, and we shouldn’t labour under the misapprehension that death only happens to other people. And because there is the corresponding Christian hope that death is already defeated and one day that last enemy will be seen crushed under Jesus’ feet.

So what does history teach us about how to respond to the pandemic? Is there a Christian alternative to ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives.’? Perhaps a simple formula for Christians would be something like: ‘Stiffen your spine. Soften your heart. Keep trusting Jesus.’ I think I prefer that one.


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