THESE are times to try our souls; to test the resilience of the human spirit and of communities. A global virus has sprung from nowhere and kept people contained in their homes. It has swiftly begun to reorientate their relationship to government, to the outside world, and to each other.
It is too early to forecast exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic will reshape society and people’s lives. To be sure, there are many dangers, toils, and snares that will have to be navigated. Pandemics tend to magnify existing inequalities rather than flatten them.
Psychological trauma from the coronavirus will happen. The American Psychology Association observed in a survey of Hong Kong residents about SARS that nearly two-thirds expressed helplessness, and nearly a half said that their mental health had severely or moderately deteriorated because of the epidemic. In this case, unaddressed trauma from quarantines and social isolation, feeling one’s own life is in danger, illness, or the loss of a loved one to coronavirus could have public-health repercussions that reverberate for years
There will be much strain on the lived experience of people in 2020: the pulling of the financial rug from under their feet, being shut up in what might feel like a form of house arrest, a spike in domestic abuse — all stress that will take a long time to work its way through.
BUT crisis moments also present opportunities: among them now are more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, less polarisation, and revived appreciation for the outdoors, denied to us for a while.
In the longer term, however, Covid-19 may leave lasting changes on society:
- A fresh resolve to tackle climate change. This year, 2020, was supposed to be the year in which environmental concern reached a tipping-point to take us to the Glasgow COP 26 conference. Since the coronavirus outbreak, pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions have fallen significantly (in New York, for example, carbon monoxide has reduced by 50 per cent, the BBC reports). Once the pandemic subsides, will it be business as usual, or will we realise that the previous way of living was not sustainable?
- A new impetus to resolving conflicts, as countries will have faced a common enemy that was no respecter of persons and jumped national borders as quickly as they were closed.
- A permanent shift in working patterns, as companies that have been forced to embrace remote working discover that their employees could work at home just as well.
- Less trust in market solutions and instrumental notions of well-being, which the crisis has exposed as being as naked as Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor in his “new clothes”.
- Free markets have buckled, and huge state takeovers have been needed to prop up the economic system. Collectivism is back, at least for the time being. Perhaps people will have been made to realise that material prosperity is not enough. What use are that high-powered job, that new car, and designer clothes? It turns out that the low-income people are the really vital people doing the crucial jobs.
- An obligation on society to take far more seriously the social impact of disconnection and isolation, and on the Church to take this more seriously, too. The connection between social relationships and health has often been overlooked. The task of living peacefully and meaningfully together was long overdue a rethink.
- More intergenerational connection: older people have ramped up ways to stay in touch, and younger offspring have felt more inclined to check in with grandparents and other older people in their lives. It would be heartening if this continued once the crisis was over.
- A renewal of society, as community solutions became a marked feature of a new social landscape. What if Covid-19 eroded the political and cultural polarisation that we had been trapped in, and helped to change course towards greater solidarity?
A MINUTE, unseen enemy has shaken global society to its foundations. This is bringing about a new way of being-in-the-world, which utterly compromises the way we were and the only way to be that we knew about. What an opportunity for people of faith, drawn to another world.
In the long run, this pandemic may hasten the emergence of a renewed vision of community and progress towards environmental renewal which we had hardly dared to think could happen. Whether it leads to the renewal of the Church rather depends on the limits of imagination.
The Revd Dr Christopher Steed is Team Rector in the Totton Team Ministry, Hampshire, a writer, and a Visiting Professor at Winchester University. He writes on issues of isolation, social change, and the atonement.