Risk and Faith in a Pandemic

We are notoriously bad at thinking about risk. For example, I avoid surfing for fear of sharks. However, I’m embarrassingly less afraid of checking my phone notifications while I’m driving. My chances of dying in a car accident? 1 in 100. My chances of a shark attack? 1 in 11 million.

Right thinking about risk, however, is essential as we come to accept that we’re still only in the beginning stages of a long pandemic. It’s too late to bring the virus down to Taiwan or New Zealand levels. A vaccine isn’t expected until next year, at the earliest. And with only 5-7% of the population infected, we are years away from herd immunity. As they say: Pandemic is the new normal.

So should we keep sheltering-in-place until we find a vaccine? No. Lockdowns are important but short-term measures to curb a pandemic. An indefinite lockdown is not only unrealistic, but as a Christian, I believe it’s unjust. It’s a luxury for only a percentage of privileged white collar workers. And, over time, it severely stifles human flourishing for all.

So should we shrug off the pandemic and “go back to normal” instead? Also, no. Even if we feel sturdy enough to stand up to COVID, we may spread COVID to others who may not stand the same chance: the sick, elderly, incarcerated, and the poor—basically everyone that Jesus calls us to show extra concern for. Going back would not only be foolish, it would be unethical.

During the HIV epidemic, people knew that while unrestrained promiscuity was a death sentence, abstinence-only until there was a cure or vaccine wasn’t realistic either. So instead, advocates and virologists developed a foundational guide for the gay community: “How to Have Sex in a Epidemic.” Now, I know it’s strange for a Christian pastor to draw on such an example, but if we are to live in between lockdown and back-to-normal that is precisely the sort of guidance we need today.

First, this will mean staying informed about the science of COVID. COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus—meaning it’s new! So scientists are constantly in the midst of learning, debating, and correcting themselves—not because they are unqualified or partisan, but because we are living in the science experiment.

Thanks to science, we now know some important things about COVID we didn’t know even a few months ago. For example:

  • it’s spread through airborne particles more than surfaces
  • you can be contagious before you’re symptomatic
  • masks do help
  • most catch it through super-spreaders
  • it’s a vascular infection (blood vessels) not just respiratory
  • it’s especially deadly for those with certain underlying conditions.

And in time, we will learn even more.

Since most of us aren’t scientists, though, best practice is to listen to experts and established consensus more than viral posts or breaking news.

Second, we must each learn to evaluate risk. In a recent debate about reopening schools, there was a meme going around saying that the only number of deaths that was acceptable was zero. While I sympathize with the sentiment and would absolutely not want any of my three boys to die, is that really reasonable? When I asked if classrooms could keep doors and windows remain open for cross-ventilation, I was told no, for fear of school shooters. Schools have never been risk-free places. And as resurrection-believing Christians who don’t believe God has guaranteed us a risk-free life, should we be perpetuate such thinking? The question shouldn’t be if there’s risk, but how risky is it.

On the flip side, faith doesn’t mean we rush foolishly into risky situations either. People who say we don’t need masks if we have Jesus don’t really understand what biblical faith is. Risk-aversion or risk-tolerance has to be more than just a feeling; it must be informed by facts. But how we use those fact—that requires wisdom.

We are fortunate that intelligent guides are finally being published. For example, Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, suggests we evaluate risk along several spectrums:

  • Contact Intensity
    • Close —— Distanced
    • Prolonged contact —— Brief
  • Number of Contacts
    • Many households —— Few
    • Mixed circles —— Stable bubble
    • Presence of at-risk people
  • Mitigation
    • Indoor —— Outdoors
    • Enclosed space —— Ventilated
    • Wearing a mask
    • Hand washing
  • Community Spread
    • High infection rates —— Low

Of course, guides like these will change. And I hope we will learn more about what other things can help lower risks for socializing, reopening schools, churches and businesses.

But as we continue living in this pandemic, each of us will need to make individual and family decisions about what risks we are comfortable taking—or have little choice but to take. And we will not all make the same decisions depending on whether we live with elderly parents, have children with special needs, can work from home, live paycheck to paycheck, have stronger social needs, or live in a densely populated area. We all live different lives and must make different decisions. But I pray they will be well-informed.

Third: How will my risk-taking impact my neighbor? Some young adults have been flagrantly ignoring physical distancing orders, going to bars, throwing COVID parties, believing they can handle the virus (by the way, this is nothing new: college students have been doing dumb things for generations). While most young people will probably be fine, they are unknowingly increasing community spread to vulnerable populations.

Now, community factors can’t completely control our decisions, but it’d be wrong to ignore our neighbors’ well-being altogether. Outside of the West, what we call individualism is called selfishness: putting yourself before your community. This is particularly important for us to consider as Christians. The Apostle Paul teaches us that our freedom must be guided by love: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. (1 Corinthians 10)

Fourth, this perspective should tone down COVID-shaming. Occasionally, people act in extremely fearful or foolish ways. But most of the time, people are acting just a few degrees more or less risky than we’re comfortable with. If risk isn’t binary but a spectrum, is there always one right or wrong way? And again, we all have different factors we are balancing. In general, I find most people think they are being reasonable—whether I think they are or not. Plus, shaming boosts our self-righteousness more than it changes people. Try an actual conversation, suggest some mitigation, or just hang out with others instead.

Also, COVID-shaming can lead people to stay silent if they contract COVID, making contact tracing difficult and isolating them from much needed support.

Fifth, we must take informed risks not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors too. As Christians, we of all people know that safety is not the ultimate goal in life. We have been saved for a purpose. And so while love in a pandemic usually means staying distanced, it will sometimes mean taking calculated risks for the sake of others. To put it another way, followers of Jesus shouldn’t just be finding the most responsible way to attend a family BBQ, but also the most responsible way to share meals with the poor. And sometimes, it may mean taking even greater risks, by faith.

This is especially important as the poor are disproportionately hit by this pandemic but have much less support; after all, most of us are simply too afraid to volunteer anymore. For those of us who can, following the example of our spiritual ancestors, including Jesus himself, we should consider what calculated risks we can take to serve the least of these.

2 thoughts on “Risk and Faith in a Pandemic”

  1. Pastor, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s precisely the topics you have brought up that we should be engaged in right now instead of politicizing about everything. One thing I will challenge is about the disease being vascular and not respiratory. The virus can impact both. Transmission is mainly via our respiratory system and the cells there are targeted. For patients where lung tissues are damaged the virus can enter our vascular system and can impact endothelial cells. https://baptisthealth.net/baptist-health-news/your-lungs-arent-the-only-thing-at-risk-with-covid-19/
    I hope that in the near future we can openly discuss risks and creative/better ways to tackle our issues.

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