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The choice we face in the Covid-19 pandemic

20 March 2020

History books will one day tell of a virus that swept the world in 2020. What that story will look like is up to us, says Will Hughes

CORONAVIRUS has two sets of symptoms. While we are hearing much about the virus, however, we are only hearing about the first set. This is deeply worrying. The Church has a central part to play in raising awareness of the second set, and in helping people to prepare for them.

The first set of symptoms are medical. They can be deferred, but we have no control over how those symptoms will manifest when the virus appears. There is an individual element to preventing and treating these symptoms: preventing them with hand-washing and not exposing ourselves to risk, and treating them as advised by the NHS. There is also a societal element, in government policy, in resourcing the NHS, in our discipline of self-isolation, and in our managing of the spread of the disease.

The second set of symptoms are spiritual. These cannot be deferred, and are already present across the country as awareness of the virus is now universal. Unlike the physical symptoms, however, we have a high level of control over how these symptoms will manifest.

There is an individual element to managing these symptoms: in how people respond to the uncertainty that the virus is bringing, and in how people behave in how they shop and make contact with others, and in the decisions that they take. There is also a societal element, in how the Government manages the virus; how the media communicate, and the stories that they choose to tell; how employers, HMRC, banks, and investors respond; and how people change their behaviour — to each other and to the world beyond.

In the media’s rush to explore every aspect of the first set of symptoms, they have largely missed their part in helping to shape the second set of symptoms. As a result, they are unwittingly creating a worsening spiritual prognosis by telling stories of fear and of the worst that is happening and might happen, and by reporting the virus so much that people lose sight of anything else.


EVERY person is faced with a choice about his or her spiritual symptoms. One option is to be infected with fear, which is manifested in stockpiling, seeking people to blame, panic, and rejecting and turning away from others.

The other option is to choose the opposite: a balanced and responsible approach to keeping ourselves safe and a careful self-isolation when it becomes necessary are the start. But then there is the choice to do more.

  • If people are less vulnerable to the medical symptoms, they could offer to help shop for those who are stuck at home. Much of this work is done every day, mostly by those in the age range most likely to have serious medical symptoms if they are infected. Younger people need to step forward and take this on.

  • Self-isolation is a physical isolation, but there have never been more ways to communicate than today — and the virus cannot travel down a phone line. Self-isolation does not have to mean loneliness. Individuals and communities can make sure that people are not alone when they are on their own.

  • There are other things in the world than this virus, and if it has not yet arrived in someone’s area, or affected him or her directly, there is plenty to see and to celebrate as the days lengthen and the spring comes. Going out in the sunshine may not kill the virus, but it does help to give a sense of perspective. As long as they are open, schools, shops, and communities are full of stories of joy and interest.

  • The media have a huge part to play in helping society to make this choice, and in telling the stories of how people are responding to this illness: stories of courage, kindness, and compassion, which set an example to others and balance the headline-grabbers of fear, uncertainty, and panic.

HISTORY books will inevitably tell the story of a virus that swept the world in 2020. But it is up to us what that story will look like.

Either they will tell the story of a virus that brought out the worst in human nature, which showed up the weakness, selfishness, and frailty of people, communities, and nations, the story of a world that fell apart in the face of disease, or they will tell how people responded with their best, how the virus was a medical but not a social tragedy, and how, faced with a profound challenge, people met and overcame it.

Covid-19 will be a source of sorrow for many, as we lose loved ones. But, when it is over, people will look back with either shame or pride at what they did, individually, as a nation, and around the world. This will depend on the choices that people make now, and in the weeks ahead.


Canon Will Hughes is the Vicar of Petersfield and the Rector of Buriton in Portsmouth diocese.


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