In the last few weeks, several institutes and individual experts have been releasing their plans for what happens after social distancing. The vision of the future that they paint needs to be taken on board by the Church because we need to get prepared for the long haul.
Here are four plans that have been produced from across the ideological spectrum. There’s one from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, the left-leaning Center for American Progress, Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics, and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer. Vox Media have put together this helpful article outlining the implications of the various plans for returning to normal life after we have successfully suppressed the initial wave of the virus. You might also want to read this article, The Hammer and the Dance, which lays out both why we need to massively suppress this virus now (the hammer) and what we’ll have to do after social isolation to stop new peaks (the dance). And The Verge produced this article outlining the team-up between Apple and Google who are developing a contact tracing system which will be built into the OS of their devices (this will probably become the technological fix which all the above plans rely on).
The major takeaway from the articles I’ve listed above can be summarised like this:
- Flattening the curve, so that it is underneath the line at which our health systems are overwhelmed, is the start of a long process.
- Once social isolation stops and the economy reopens, the number of daily confirmed infections will start to grow again. If left unchecked, we will be back where we started with an overwhelmed health service and thousands of people dying every day.
- The only way to stop that is to implement mass surveillance and contact testing on an unprecedented scale. This will allow us to re-open the economy, while still maintaining a health system and dancing with the R-0 number to keep it at 1 or lower (if that last bit sounded like gobbledygook then read The Hammer and the Dance, Tomas Pueyo explains it much better than I can).
- There’s no going back to life before COVID-19, at least not until we’ve created a vaccine, which is at least 18 months away.
There are three variables at play here
Scenario 1) You can let the virus run it’s course unfettered through society. Lots and lots of people will die but (advocates for this position argue) those people are likely to die anyway and it means we won’t need to close down the economy (which has its own set of damaging effects) or we must all submit to invasive tracking and surveillance by either the government or private companies.
Scenario 2) You can aggressively quarantine everyone for months. The economy takes a massive hit but no one else gets infected and no one has to submit to invasive contact tracing and surveillance. In reality, this is basically impossible for liberal democracies to do, suppression like this does seem to have worked in places like Wuhan but it’s unlikely to work in the UK or the US and it only delays the inevitable moment when everyone goes back outside and the infections ramp up again.
Scenario 3) We can all submit to invasive tracking and surveillance, either by the government or private companies so that the economy can be brought back on track without overwhelming the health system. Of course, large portions of the population here in the US have already made it clear that they will not willingly submit to the suggested levels of surveillance proposed with this method.
What does all this mean for the Church?
The Church needs to be honest with itself that we are in this for the long haul and start planning accordingly. This is why I laboured the point that all the experts say we are in this for the foreseeable future: the Church cannot be under the illusion that once social isolation starts to be lifted we can all return back to life as it was before. It’s going to require energy to move forward and finding the motivation is going to be hard if we think we can go back to where we’ve come from.
Firstly, there are a series of practical concerns that will allow the Church to survive in this season:
- Moving to online services is not a novelty, they are here to stay, in all of the plans listed above large gatherings including religious services remain banned after social isolation is lifted. So let’s make sure we can get as good at them as possible, refining the experience week after week.
- As Church leaders, we need to find ways to develop community, lay leadership and discipleship in our congregations, finding ways to involve the congregation as much as possible. In the last month, there has been lots of practical advice on this here, here and from me here.
Secondly, the Church needs to develop a vision for how to not just survive, but thrive:
- The Church is going to have to think innovatively about how it can respond to the novel and multitudinous needs which will arise in the year ahead. Many people in our congregations are going to end up in economic hardship, how can we support them? A good example of this is from my Church here in Manhattan who have recently set up a Psalm 91 fund where members of the congregation can give to the fund and the proceeds go to help those in financial need.
- But we also need to think beyond our congregations and find ways to meet and minister to the many people in our parishes and networks are going to need our help. How can we develop and grow our foodbanks through this crisis? How can the Church reach the many isolated and lonely people in our towns and cities?
- In emergencies like this, we know from history that people often find themselves reconsidering their views on the meaning of life, God and their place in the universe. The Church will need to find new ways to facilitate those conversations if it is going to grow through the Coronavirus. One of the benefits of Online Church is that people who would never normally enter a Church building or service can log in and watch, maybe for the first time. Are we taking this into account and speaking to the needs of those people as they seek answers to the questions which this pandemic is raising for them?
Thirdly, the Church is going to have to theologically reflect on this season. What Biblical paradigms are available to us to give insight into how to live and also to bring comfort? I’m going to attempt to tackle this question in my next blog post… stay tuned!