The Theology of a Pandemic

Photo: Korhan Erdol / Pexels

It’s terribly easy not to think for yourself when the consequences don’t affect you directly.

Case in point: the coronavirus has, to date, killed a cataclysmic… 338,515 people. I’m not not even going to bother with the usual ‘every death is a tragedy’ deference. Of course the death of a loved one is a tragedy for those affected, but around 60 million people will die this year which means that COVID deaths will account for just half a percent of total deaths. Why lament those 0.5% and not the others?

Here are some other big killers: Cholera, up to 140,000 annually. Typhoid, up to 160,000. Malaria, 620,000. Flu, 650,000. And, astonishingly (where are the headlines on this one?), having developed a degree of antibiotic resistance, in 2018 tuberculosis killed 1.5 million people.

But even that pales in comparison to one of the biggest killers globally, including (unlike COVID) of children: poverty. Around 9 million people die of hunger and hunger related illnesses annually, including 3 million children. Nearly half the deaths of under-5s annually are poverty related.

Those of you calling for an extended economic shutdown because ‘lives matter,’ know this: poverty isn’t only a killer in third world countries. in 2011, 874,000 people died of poverty-related causes in the United States according to the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health – nearly as many as heart disease and cancer combined.

But sure, let’s close down the global economy pitching millions into unemployment because there’s a new virus on the scene, just so that those who have bought the hype can feel virtuous. That totally makes sense.

By far, the biggest problem with our consumerist, laissez-faire lifestyles is not that we’ve all become obese or that familial society is breaking down (although those are genuine problems in their own right), it’s that we have forgotten how to think for ourselves, to assess risk and consequence.

It is this phenomenon – this lack of critical thinking skills – that has led directly to the rise of virtue signalling, which must be by far the most pernicious threat to our culture right now. Want to save the whales? Free Palestine? End child slavery? Click a button, send an email, post about it on Twitter with an angry face emoji. Job done. Now you can go back to your Starbucks and watching Love Island while feeling that warm glow of self-righteousness.

In the age of COVID this has become even more pernicious. The British government still has the whole country in lockdown because of models known to be faulty which predicted half a million deaths in the UK alone. Not only did that apocalyptic prediction clearly fail to materialise, it is now emerging that the people making the predictions and putting us all under lockdown didn’t believe it themselves, as they’ve apparently been jaunting about all over the country, merrily spreading COVID in their wake. Yet still on social media every day we see people asking how best to turn in their neighbours for going for a walk, or shaming people they’ve seen around town. Why?

Lionel Shriver, writing in last week’s Spectator has a good line on this: “In obeisance to this official Blitzy version of events, the British public is now doomed to act out an elaborate theatre of medical paranoia, because to relax social distancing is also to suggest that maybe much social distancing was dumb to begin with,” she wrote. Nobody wants to admit that perhaps their fear and panic was misplaced so instead they double down, calling those who are looking at the stats with a critical eye ‘conspiracy theorists’ and ‘dangerous.’

Shriver continues: “I am steeped in dread. I foresee months, if not years, of inane gesturing towards ‘safety’ that makes no appreciable difference to the nation’s health, but does manage to 1) ruin everyone’s enjoyment; 2) perpetuate the socially poisonous notion that one’s neighbour is a threat to one’s very life; 3) maintain an atmosphere of the extraordinary, in which the state may violate civil rights at will; 4) lay waste to what little might otherwise have remained of this country’s economy. The lockdown has been bad enough. Post-lockdown could be worse.”

Post lockdown most likely will be worse, unless we get a grip.

Approximately twelve years ago, it must be almost to the day thinking about it, I started going to church. I couldn’t have told you why, exactly, I only knew that my life didn’t seem to have any point to it. There was simply no reason for any of the things I was doing: getting a job, paying bills, drinking on the weekends and falling into bed with people. I was doing them because everyone else was, and no obvious alternative presented itself.

In going to church I wasn’t seeking God, and I really didn’t want to know Jesus who seemed at best to be a sort of hippyish uncool older brother figure, but I’d heard that there was an old book, an ancient self-help manual that suggested there might be something more – something which meant something – and that this book was found in churches. So in I went.

Almost immediately I hit a snag. I was told to ask for forgiveness for my sins. Only, I couldn’t think of any. I mean, I was just the same as everyone else, and most people are basically good, aren’t we? Everyone bickers sometimes or is lazy when they could be motivated. What harm did it do? And I clicked the online petition buttons along with everyone else and cared deeply that there are children in India who live on rubbish dumps. So why was I having to ask for forgiveness? What had I done wrong?

What I hadn’t understood then is that all actions have consequences, whether we understand them or not. Our collective failure to think critically, our preference for NHS pot-banging virtue signalling is a sin, in essence, and it too has its consequences. If left unchecked, it will be the cause of an economic crash of truly historic proportions, with all the misery that entails. And even then people won’t link their own behaviour, their own thought processes to the outcome, it will be seen as something that was ‘unavoidable,’ that happened ‘because of coronavirus.’

Rabbi Sacks recently wrote that in the Book of Jonah, “God tells Jonah the Prophet to go to Nineveh and warn the people, “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed.” He does so. The people take him seriously. They repent. God then relents from His threat to destroy the city. Jonah complains to God that He has made him look ridiculous. His prophecy has not come true. Jonah has failed to understand the difference between a prophecy and a prediction. If a prediction comes true, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes true, it has failed. The Prophet tells the people what will happen if they fail to change. A prophecy is not a prediction but a warning. It describes a fearful future in order to persuade the people to avert it.”

As strange as this sounds, I believe that the coronavirus is, in its own way, a prophecy.

It is clear that there are two paths before us. We can continue to blindly follow the baseless rules and edicts of our increasingly authoritarian governments, allow ourselves to be frightened into compliance by nonsense statistics, and wander into a totalitarian regime of our own making, microchipped and submissive.

Or we can learn to engage fucking brain, to assess government pronouncements with a critical ear, to look at the statistics for ourselves and ask ourselves honestly: Do they really stack up? Is what I’m being asked to do commensurate with the threat? And if not, am I still going to do it? If we do that, the economic/totalitarian crisis will be averted, and the prophecy, the promise of the truly free and wealthy society that is always within our grasp if we dare reach for it, will be fulfilled.

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