We need community

The thing about a pandemic is that becomes news around the world. I like to begin my day with a scan of headlines in a variety of news sources from around the world and all of them seem to be focusing on coronavirus stories. That is a challenge for my daily journal, because I want to be topical and aware of the news, but I tire of writing on the same subject cay after day. At the same time, like most of the other people in the world, I have been thinking about coronavirus and the appropriate response of the church to the pandemic.

I don’t think that we should be surprised that the response in the United States seems to be a bit disjointed. We don’t really have a centralized national health program. We have resisted putting authority for healthcare decisions in a single place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has limited authority over state and county health officials. Funding for the CDC has been cut during the current administration. The affordable care act has been under attack from many different fronts. We don’t have a national health plan or policy. And without a plan and without policy we don’t exactly know how to respond.

This is further complicated by the for profit health care system we have embraced in our country. Even nonprofit hospitals have dozens of for-profit enterprises embedded in them. This means that extraction of wealth from illness is built into the system, It also means that there are companies who will continue to put profits ahead of public health. If your income stream is based on making money from treating sick people, there is no financial incentive in keeping people well.

So our system has more chaos than might be a part of a more coordinated system. However, as we have seen in recent decades, overhauling the nation’s health care system is a difficult and politically fraught enterprise. We have a lot of work ahead of us before we reach some form of equity in terms of access to health care.

One of the concepts that I want to explore is a relatively new term that now has been touted over and over: social distancing. It seems to be a part of nearly every pandemic response plan and the news medial are using the term as if it has a common meaning among all people, but it really has not been defined. We don’t know what it means. There have been some articles about keeping a six foot distance between you and anyone else. This means no touching, no handshaking and no physical contact. That, however, is impossible for most people. Except for a few hermits and recluses, we are social animals. Study after study has demonstrated the negative effects of depriving infants and children of personal contact. There are all kinds of personal care and health care functions that require touch. We play many games that bring us into close contact. We make music together and gather audiences. The concept that we would simply cancel all of these actives leaves us with a bleak and fearful world.

There are ways in which isolation can be helpful in slowing the spread of disease, but simply trying to isolate everyone from contact with others has a myriad of consequences, many of which may be more detrimental to health in the long run than contacting the virus.

I suspect that the real reason for cancelling schools has little to do with a rational approach to disease control. It gives the appearance that leaders are doing something and they need that appearance. I get that. But this disease, while contagious has nowhere near the rate of spread among children of a disease like measles. Children tend to become slightly ill for 2 to 3 days and the death rate among children from coronavirus is very low. The spread of coronavirus among children might even promote the development of natural immunities. Children, however, share their diseases with their parents and grandparents. The parents might be sick for two or three weeks with the same virus. It could be life-threatening for grandparents. So closing schools is mostly an attempt to keep the virus from spreading to adults.

So I don’t know what social distancing really means. I understand that large crowds present the possibility of spreading the virus more quickly. I understand that person to person transmission is more common than becoming infected from contacting surfaces. But how far apart are we supposed to remain? Is closing down our communities really the answer.

I confess that at the core of my faith and my being is a deep commitment to community. I attended a funeral on Friday. I will officiate at another on Monday. I routinely witness the power of community to heal some of the deepest wounds and sorrows of life. I believe that gathering community is essential to dealing with grief and loss. I know that one of the most important parts of end of life care is presence. For many the fear of dying alone is very real. The transition from this life is much easier when surrounded by loving family and friends. I’ve sat with too many people as they have died to wish to be alone at that moment when my time comes.

Worship is about sharing with others. As skilled as some have become at attempting to use media such as television or the Internet to offer worship, communal worship is quite different from watching entertainers on a screen. Media is a poor substitute for real relationships.

In the midst of this crisis, our church is reluctant to cancel worship. We will, of course, comply with direct instructions from public health officials. We are, of course, being diligent in cleaning and hand-washing. We are responding with limiting touches such as handshakes and embraces. I will, however, lead worship in our sanctuary as long as I am able. It is central to who we are and what we do. If that is a failure of social distancing it is because we continue to be a society. There are limits to our ability to live at a distance.

There are unintended consequences of social distancing. To face this crisis we need social solidarity. Ardent self-preservation leads to families stocking up on essential items as if the needs of others didn’t matter. Blatant selfishness won’t solve this crisis. Our faith speaks of sacrifice and caring for the needs of the community. We are all in this together. We need each other. We need community. And we need our children to get together so that they learn to share and care for each other. It seems to be a lesson some of their parents and grandparents have forgotten.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!