By Emma Matheson, reprinted from Ethos Engage.Mail.
The author is a registered nurse with emergency specialization. She is also in her final year of a Master of Ministry degree at Morling College and a resident church planter at Earlwood Baptist Church, Sydney.
The world we now live in is a dramatically different place to what it was a month ago. COVID-19 has proven itself to be a bigger threat than most of us imagined, and the world is now playing catch-up. The problem we are facing is complex and will challenge us in ways we have never been challenged before. Experts in every field are already addressing some of the most serious challenges posed to us by COVID-19. While the problem is mammoth and inconceivably complex, I believe the way forward for us as Christ followers begins with Jesus’ most famous words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ and ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Love God. Love people. We begin here. But how do we do this when we are told to socially distance?
In the last week, healthcare workers have been posting photos of themselves on social media holding signs reading:
YOU STAY AT HOME FOR US. I STAY AT WORK FOR YOU.
Among them is a friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Tim Tan. We have worked together for nine years in a Sydney metropolitan Emergency Department where he is a senior consultant and I am a registered nurse. In that time, our Emergency Department has ridden several waves of public health concerns. Each time something like this emerges, we implement contingency plans and things work out just fine. COVID-19 is different. We have never faced anything like this before, and we are concerned. This is why the Australian government is instituting restrictions on social liberty that none of us have ever experienced, and healthcare workers like Dr. Tan are taking to social media to make public pleas for help. It is a plea that echoes Jesus’ injunction to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Dr. Tim Tan
To enact protective love for our neighbors, the public must enter a partnership with healthcare workers. This partnership depends on the public doing all it can to slow the spread of COVID-19, while healthcare workers do all they can to treat people with COVID-19. This is the motivation behind Dr. Tan’s photo. In discussing his reasons for posting his photo, Dr. Tan states:
I want to create awareness regarding flattening the curve. People should stay at home to flatten the curve, so our health service won’t be overrun by large numbers of sick patients. Everyone can play their part in reducing the spread of the virus via social distancing.
Dr. Tan’s plea is echoed in Government policy and health department advice, which has also been focused on flattening the curve via social distancing. These measures are key to riding out this pandemic.
The curve that health authorities want to flatten is a bell-shaped graphical representation of the number of new cases of COVID-19 over time. For an excellent visual representation of the curve, see Harry Stevens’ article in the Washington Post here. Epidemiologists are warning us that if no, or ineffective, protective measures are implemented, then cases of COVID-19 will rise exponentially and will quickly overwhelm existing health services. This has happened in Italy already. At the time of writing, there were over 59,000 cases of confirmed COVID-19 and over 5,500 deaths in that country. Sadly, Italy stands as an example to the world of what happens if protective measures are not effective in flattening the curve. So serious is the situation in Italy that the Russian military have sent in troops to help. We need to avoid this.
In response to watching this disaster unfold, some have been tracking Australia’s progress along the bell curve and have prognosticated a healthcare crisis for Australia on a scale comparable to Italy’s. As terrifying as these projections are, we can be assured that these are not a certain outcome for us. What these projections don’t account for are both the demographic differences between Australia and Italy and the mitigating actions we can take to flatten this curve. These mitigating actions include population-wide adherence to social distancing measures. This is why Dr. Tan is among thousands of healthcare workers who are taking to social media, asking the public to partner with us, to “stay home” and to do everything in their power to slow the spread of infection within Australia. If enough people follow social distancing measures, we have the power to flatten the curve. We can do this, but we need you to partner with us. Healthcare workers will continue to go to work, but we need the Australian public to stay home and do all they can to stop this virus spreading. In this regard, engaging in effective social distancing measures is a powerful enactment of Jesus’ mandate to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Social distancing (which is perhaps better phrased as physical distancing) refers to practices aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19 from person to person by minimizing physical contact between people. It works on the principle that the greater the space between people, the harder it is for COVID-19 to spread. Social distancing includes careful adherence to hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, maintaining a physical distance between people of at least 1.5 meters, avoiding large gatherings of people and self-isolating if sick. Specific recommendations for social distancing are being updated as the situation changes and can be accessed here.
Slowly, Australians are beginning to understand the seriousness of this pandemic. Panic buying is a good indicator of this. However, this panic buying combined with haphazard compliance with social distancing recommendations show that we are preparing in the wrong ways. It also reveals the precarity of the partnership healthcare workers are asking for. Even though massive media campaigns have been running to promote social distancing, the weekend just passed saw us fail at doing this effectively. Cafés were full, shopping centers buzzed with activity and Bondi beach was awash with patrons, much to the ire of the world. This needs to stop now. I understand the inertia. Loving our neighbors through practicing social distancing is paradoxical. We are so accustomed to loving through proximity. Now we are being asked to love through physical distance, and this must be done without delay.
In saying this, I understand there is a difficult tension we need to hold, especially as Christ followers. Loving our neighbors at this time as Christ instructs means we must simultaneously physically distance ourselves while ensuring social proximity, especially with the most vulnerable among us. These seemingly paradoxical practices mean we need to prayerfully exercise discernment in how to tread this tightrope. While it is essential we do all we can to avoid contracting and passing on COVID-19, we can’t neglect our responsibility to love in other ways. Here, technology takes us part of the way toward holding this tension well. Zoom, social media, even old-fashioned phone calls help us meet each other’s emotional and spiritual needs. However, this won’t be enough.
Certain people will be more vulnerable because they are more likely to become seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. This includes the over 60s, those with pre-existing medical conditions and people with weak immune systems. Additionally, certain groups are more likely to be adversely affected by social distancing such as those with pre-existing mental illnesses, poor mobility, families with very young children, single people who live alone, the unemployed (or soon to be) and those without independent transport. These people will need help at this time.
Speaking very practically, Dr. Tan urges us to love our neighbors by
keeping an eye on those around you who are more vulnerable, especially for those who have poor mobility or are socially isolated as they will obviously have trouble getting out of their home. Check that they have adequate medication supplies, home essentials and food.
This has become even more essential since panic buying has meant that home essentials and even some medications are becoming increasingly hard to obtain. At times, assisting those who are more vulnerable will mean leaving the protection of our homes and seeing people in person. They may need you to bring them supplies, do home maintenance or even just share space for a time. In these cases, we must exercise wisdom in mitigating risk through meeting outdoors if a face-to-face meeting is necessary, practicing good frequent hygiene, not touching others or their belongings and by maintaining physical distance. At all times, do this with caution, while following the most recent government recommendations.
This will be a trying time for all of us. We can expect to experience heightened stress and potentially grief. Loving God is what will sustain us through this. Psalm 1 reminds us that those who delight in God’s law, his words and his story will be like trees planted by a river. Through being nourished and replenished by loving God, they will grow like strong flourishing trees. They will not just be resilient, but they will produce fruit in each season, even this season.
Love God. Love people. Our response to COVID-19 begins this simply.
Image credits: Group photo Patch.com, solo photo Dr. Tim Tan.