We appear to have entered a rather different phase of engagement with the question of Covid-19 and our response to this legally and socially. At the beginning of the ‘first wave’ in March, there was a widespread sense that we needed to respond quickly and drastically, and most of the criticism was that Government had not acted quickly or seriously enough.
The mood appears different now. There is so much more information around, and much more that we do in fact know about the virus—and with that there has been a clearer divergence of expert views on both how to make sense of what is happening and how to respond to it.
This sharpens the question of how Christians should respond. With the divergence of views elsewhere, I have noticed a divergence of views amongst Christian friends and ministry colleagues, and so I thought it worth making some observations about our response overall. I won’t be justifying everything I say; there has been such a torrent of literature, some of it technical and complex, that it would take weeks to note it all. But I think that the observations below are easy to support, and they need to shape appropriate Christian response.
1. Covid-19 is a particularly nasty and dangerous virus
You don’t have to stray very far into the by-ways of social media to find people who claim that the situation we are in has been created by some sort of Government conspiracy, and even to find people claiming that the virus is not ‘real’. But the medical evidence is clear: this is real, and it is particularly nasty, in two ways.
First, it is highly infectious, and can be spread by those who have it even before they manifest symptoms. Solving this problem is the aim of track-and-trace systems, alerting people to contact they might have had with others who were, at the time, asymptomatic. There is some irony at work here; more immediately deadly viruses like Ebola were in some sense less dangerous at a population level, since people become ill and died before they could spread the virus widely. Covid-19 is exactly the opposite.
Secondly, the mechanics of Covid-19 and its impact on the body have been largely unknown and difficult to understand. Early on, it was noted that it caused damaged through provoking an immune response that itself caused most of the problem, creating what is known as a cytokine storm in the body. But more recent research indicates that something different is going on (a bradykinin storm) which explains some of the strange symptoms, including ‘Covid toe’ where feeling is lost in the extremities.
The net result is that some who have been infected have suffered from nasty and unexpected long-term effects, and I know several friends who have been seriously ill for months on end.
Very early on, statistician David Spiegelhalter noticed that the mortality risk from Covid-19 tracked very closely normal mortality risk by age. In other words, whatever your risk of dying this year, Covid-19 brought that risk into the next two weeks. This accounts for why the elderly have been the main victims of the virus. On average in the UK, around 620,000 people die each year. At the time it looked as though, if Covid-19 had spread unchecked in the population, then we could have seen that many people die in a very short period of time, overwhelming every medical facility and mortuary in the country in a moment.
2. There are some in our society who are very vulnerable
One of the complications in measuring the impact of Covid-19 has been distinguishing between those who have ‘died of Covid-19′ and those who have ‘died with Covid-19′. It is unusual for the virus itself to kill people; what happens is that it accelerates the deterioration of those who already have other conditions (‘co-morbidities’). Therefore those who are at risk from the virus include not only the elderly, but those with other conditions which make them vulnerable, particularly people with suppressed immune response, and those with disabilities which make them more susceptible to infection. Disability campaigner Katie Tupling expresses this sense of vulnerability well in her Facebook post:
Just so we are clear about what level of fact and opinion I will currently tolerate on my Profile…
2 million people in the country are CEV – Clinically Extremely Vulnerable to CV19… and 90,000 children. If they get CV19 – more than likely the next time time they come into our Church buildings it would be in a coffin…These are the people (dispensable) referred to by Gov and Media as ‘the elderly and vulnerable’ – in fact, not all CEVs are elderly, so you count in the over 70s and the 2million figure goes up…
Then factor in that most don’t live alone – now CEV and EV households go up to c.5+ million people, of all ages. Those households – statistically – are deemed more likely to be decimated by CV19… Tup-house is one of them.
I’m not afraid of being dead. I’m afraid that the gung-ho, Christ-triumphant ethos some people are articulating will lead to people taking risks, putting on pressure (‘real Christians are gathering for in-person worship’) and dismissing the reality for 5m people that CV19 is the actual threat, not your perceived lack of freedom…
This offers a powerful response to those who disregard either the actual or the perceived sense of threat from this virus.
3. The UK Government have failed to response coherently and competently
Now, dear reader, before you dismiss this observation as a cheap party-political leftist shot, it is worth pointing out that this view is pretty widespread across the political spectrum. Media outlets of every kind have reported this, and it is quickly confirmed by doing an internet search of ‘UK Government Covid failure’. One of the most charitable and balanced assessments of these failures can be found here.
The most significant and obvious failures include the following:
- Initial complacency about the early news, with inaccurate estimates of the early rate of growth of infections.
- Failure to implement checks on those returning to the UK from Covid-19 hotspots in Spain and Italy; 16 million returned in a few weeks in February, bringing the virus to multiple centres of infection across the UK.
- Failure to implement basic hygiene disciplines; I still cringe when I recall Boris Johnson boasting about shaking hands with people in hospital, leading to his own infection days later.
- Failure to prohibit large gatherings just prior to lockdown, which led to major centres of infection in several locations.
- The moving of infected elderly patients out of hospitals without testing, taking the virus into care homes across the country.
- The massive over-reaction to a non-peer reviewed report from Neil Ferguson at the University of London, driven by anxiety about electoral response rather than by a desire to get the overall decisions right.
- The lack of diverse voices in SAGE so that the group were locked into a single narrative without critical peer reflection.
- The complete failure to have a proper testing regime, including false claims about how many people were actually being tested at every stage.
- The complete failure to develop a test-and-trace app—it was promised in May! And it was promised to be world-beating!
- The issuing of arbitrary and conflicting rules that have no actual basis in evidence. The latest ‘rule of six’ really makes no sense at all, since it is the number of households involved in any meetings which is at least as important as the number of actual people.
These failures have had a material impact on the number people being infected and dying—but they have also created a particular culture of confusion in the UK population as a whole.
4. Much response has been irrational and ill-informed
Response in the UK to both the virus and restrictions has been very varied. On the one hand, some sections of society have been cavalier in disregarding restrictions, and when I have been shopping I have noticed a good number without masks, or not taking much notice of the need for distancing. A friend of a friend who has come to the UK to study from Spain has been really shocked by the lack of consistent compliance, in marked contrast to her experience back home; we do not have the kind of culture of social compliance which has, for example, enabled Sweden to take a quite different approach.
On the other hand, I have also noticed people taking an almost superstitious approach to the virus, as if the prevention measures were magical actions that we had to do which would ward off this mysterious evil. Thus you see people wearing masks when driving alone in their own car, or when walking alone in open space. I am aware of people who are in the vulnerable category mentioned above who have not been outside their own homes, when in fact walking in an open space away from others would have been completely safe. Others have avoided visiting elderly relatives, out of concern for the vulnerability of either themselves of the other, when in fact there are manageable ways of maintaining contact. Irrational fear, leading to hyper-risk avoidance (that we would not apply to any other aspect of life) is common.
Worst of all have been the stories, especially from earlier in the year, of people dying alone because loved ones were not allowed at the bedside, or of pregnant women having scans and confronting the tragedy of a still birth in isolation from their partner. These are the product of over-zealous administrators, implementing ill-thought-out policies, devised and rolled out without considering the wider implications of such actions. This appears to be a particularly British failing.
5. Narrow considerations of one aspect of ‘science’
The Government mantra has been to ‘follow the science’, and this sounds appealing and objective until you think about it for a short time. For one thing, the science in the early days of this crisis was actually unclear; there were important things that we did not know, and many people were shooting in the dark. There are always judgements to be made in both assessing scientific judgements, and in assessing how this information should sit in a wider context. To claim to reach for ‘science’ is often a strategy of avoiding making those judgements.
And it has been consistently clear that the politicians themselves have difficulty understanding the science they are referring to. Only this week, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, showed that he had no real understanding of the possibility of ‘false positives’ (when a test indicates that someone has the virus when they don’t) and its impact on infection data. (Listen to this week’s More or Less on Radio 4 through BBC Sounds for an account of this. More or Less has been essential listening during this time; it is worth going back and listening to all episodes since January to get a good perspective on all aspects of the pandemic.)
Part of the problem here is that data always needs interpretation. Carl Heneghan and the team from the University of Oxford have pointed out that the graph used by Chris Witty to show that infections are on the rise, thus leading to the call for new restrictions, is incorrect because he has not interpreted the data correctly. When you look at the information and relate it to the date when tests were done, not when the test results were reported, then it suggests that infections are in decline, both here and in Spain, and not on the increase. The fairly flat rate of hospital admissions and recorded deaths supports this.
There is an interesting assessment of whether we are facing a ‘second wave’ in this analysis here. The author, Dr Ivor Cummins, is not medically qualified, but he is concerned to bring consistent ‘scientific method’ to the data, and all his sources are peer-reviewed and use primary data. He points out something significant which I think has been missed in other commentary: we must put the data on ‘Covid deaths’ in the context of what has been happening with seasonal winter flu in different countries, which in the UK can easily be responsible for 28,000 deaths each season. The fact that we had a mild winter and so many fewer deaths this year means that there were many more people who were vulnerable to Covid-19 than we would have expected. And the differences here account to a large degree for the differences in Covid mortality between Sweden and the other Nordic countries. (His assessment has been criticised, but he offers a detailed response to criticisms in his latest video here.)
But the biggest problem has been isolating the data related to the spread of the virus from all other considerations. Dr Michael Yeadon is one of a group of scientists who believe that the models the Government is relying on are wrong, that there will be no second wave, and that the current testing regime is based on false measurements (you can read the full argument here). But in a separate piece, he notes the huge price that has been paid in other ways—economic, relational and personal—and which does not appear to have been factored in to policy discussions.
We now know that lockdown made no difference at all to the spread of the virus. We can tell this because the interval between catching the virus and, in those who don’t make it, their death is longer than the interval between lockdown and peak daily deaths. There isn’t any controversy about this fact, easily demonstrated, but I’m aware some people like to pretend it was lockdown that turned the pandemic, perhaps to justify the extraordinary price we have all paid to do it. That price wasn’t just economic. It involved avoidable deaths from diseases other than COVID-19, as medical services were restricted, in order to focus on the virus.
Some say that lockdown, directly and indirectly, killed as many as the virus. I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve sought to learn. But I mention because interventions in all our lives should not be made lightly. Its not only inconvenience, but real suffering, loss of livelihoods, friendships, anchors of huge importance to us all, that are severed by such acts. We need to be certain that the prize is worth the price. While it is uncertain it was, even for the first lockdown, I too supported it, because we did not know what we faced, and frankly, almost everyone else did it, except Sweden. I am now resolutely against further interventions in what I have become convinced is a fruitless attempt to ‘control the virus’.
This morning, as I walked our dog Barney, I met Linda, a widow who lives on her own and her dog Bruno. I asked her how she was—and the answer was that she and her friends were terrified about the possible effects of another lockdown. I could see it in her eyes. Surely these concerns should feature in any policy calculation?
A distinctively Christian response?
Is there a distinctively Christian response to these realities? Well, yes and no. I hope and pray that Christians and Christian leaders might be able to contribute something distinctive to reflection, commentary and understanding of the situation we are in. But it is worth noting that being able to say something that no-one is saying anywhere else is not the test of whether we have a distinctive Christian contribution. This is evident in the way, for example, large parts of Scripture borrow from the wisdom traditions of other cultures, and even other religions, and then declare that these words are the words of God and his revelation to his people.
And yet I think that a Christian perspective does bring something distinctive. We should be able to speak both passionately and dispassionately. We should be able to address the immediate, that which is in front of us, but in the context of things that are eternal. Christians of all people should be able to understand this moment in the wider context of the past—not least because Christians have been faithfully bearing witness in the context of pandemics throughout human history. And we should be able to hold together both the personal and the social and have a distinct understanding of the importance of community in an age of individualism.
I therefore hope that Christian voices can speak for these things:
1. Seek the truth
We can have no truck with conspiracy theories that try to explain away the reality of the virus—nor should we ignore them. We need to engage with the testable facts about what has been happening, and challenge others to do the same.
2. Protect the vulnerable
Some of those arguing for fewer restrictions appear to present their case in terms of a trade-off between the protection of the vulnerable and the running of the economy, and it is not surprising that those in the ‘vulnerable’ group find this offensive. A Christian perspective must take the needs of the vulnerable seriously, and not treat it as part of a zero-sum game—but there is more than one kind of vulnerability at stake, and we need to consider the harm that is done by isolation, loss of livelihoods, fear and anxiety and other mental health issues along with those who feel exposed to risk from the virus itself.
3. Encourage debate
It is very clear now that there is more than one robust, well researched scientific perspective on the specific question of the nature and spread of the virus itself. Christians are committed to civil obedience in all but the most extreme cases, as articulated by Paul in Romans 13. But that does not necessarily entail agreeing with the perspective or agenda of any particular regime, as articulated by John in Revelation 13.
It seems to me rather strange when obedience to Government policy and supporting its implementation is interpreted as agreeing with Government scientists and supporting their interpretation of the evidence. The two are not the same.
4. Speak of death
The one distinctive thing that Christians can contribute to this moment is to speak fearlessly of the reality of death and human mortality, and the transcendent hope in the face of grief, loss and death that the resurrection of Jesus offers.
Last Saturday morning, a Labour spokesperson, as she criticised Government policy, was asked what would be an acceptable level of infection of the virus if policy was effective. ‘Zero’ was the answer, and it represented perfectly our culture’s delusion about illness and death. We live in an age of hubris, where medicine can cure all our ills, and death is an unfortunate and embarrassing issue we would rather not talk about. In Christian theology, mortality is actually a central reality of human life and a mark of our creatureliness.
In his metaphorical novel The Plague (which is actually a reflection on the ‘pestilence’ of Nazism), Albert Camus comments:
We tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away.
Pandemics remind us of our mortality, and it is a reminder that we resent.
The illustration at the top of this piece, borrowed from Michael Yeadon’s article, has a key and rather ironic significance in Christian thinking about pandemics. It is taken from Revelation 6, which many interpret as pointing forwards to some future ‘end times’ period of catastrophe. But, as I demonstrate in my commentary, the imagery of the four horsemen actually describe how life is for John’s readers in the first century, and in fact how life will continue to be until Jesus’ return—periodically marked by violence, conquest, disease, famine and death. His message of hope in Jesus and the free gift of the water of the river of life points to what we need to live in every age, and not just in some future ‘apocalypse’.
This last issue is the one where we have the most distinctive contribution to make—and I think it is the one of which, thus far, we have failed to speak out clearly enough.