The pandemic has been a missed opportunity for the Church

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We have learnt some alarming and disturbing news about the way our children have become casualties of lockdown.

“Five year old children are suffering panic attacks at the prospect of meeting their friends again,” NHS leaders have warned this week.

Last year, 27,000 children were prescribed anti-depressants, and between April and December 2020 there was a 28 per cent rise in children being referred to mental health services. If you want to know what the numbers look like, that’s 80,000 more cases.

According to the Daily Telegraph, children are frightened to leave their homes, and NHS leaders have claimed that 1.5 million children will need mental health treatment as a consequence of the lockdowns. Yet the current wait for psychotherapeutic help from the NHS is four years. 

When the virus broke out in the West, very little was known about it. But there were at least two strategies available. The most obvious, articulated by Lord Sumption, was to enable the vulnerable to shield themselves by secluding themselves from the infection as far as possible. But governments chose the opposite route and locked down the whole population.

Whatever their motives for taking this course of action, they realized that a mixture of cooperation and coercion was needed. The application of fear could facilitate both.

There were indeed reasons for being afraid, but not all of them were obvious in the public domain. Some got very little public oxygen, but were taken seriously at the highest levels of the intelligence community. There emerged the anxiety that China appeared to have begun a form of biological warfare against the West, deliberately or accidentally.

The fear of that would be enough to keep anyone in the West up at night.

But it wasn’t anxiety about geopolitical issues that held our populations in the grip of fear; it was the prospect of dying.

Despite the fact that the West has been expecting a pandemic as devastating as the Spanish Flu of 1918 for some time, Coronavirus was not it. The death toll of the Spanish flu was estimated to be as high as 50 million people. The toll from Covid is between 1 and 2 million. Spanish flu killed the young. The average age of death due to Covid, according to the ONS in the UK, was and is 83. If you change the question to involving Covid instead of due to Covid, it comes down to 80.3.

And yet, our governments have terrorised us. And they have done it because they weren’t confident they could gain our compliance simply by telling us the truth.

The statistics used to count the deaths made no distinction between a death caused by Covid and someone dying from comorbidities who happened to have Covid but whose death was caused by other fragilities in their health. I believe the statistics were used to alarm us.

Campaigns were launched to keep people isolated from each other and pressurising children to comply by warning “don’t kill granny.”

Astonishingly, between 70 per cent and 87 per cent of the population (depending on which sources you believe) are so frightened by Covid that they want the government to continue locking them down. The fog of fear has overcome the desire for freedom, it seems.

Laura Dodsworth recently published a book called The State of Fear We Are In in which she charted the beginning of nudge politics under David Cameron as behavioural psychologists were employed by the government to find ways of ‘persuading’ the population to behave in ways that the government wanted to direct.

As Covid developed, so the numbers of behavioural psychologists on the government’s payroll expanded. The SPI-B (Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviour) was formed, but Dodsworth also charts the explosive growth in behavioural psychologists employed by departments across the whole range of government. Have you noticed how you are being nudged to become a vegan recently in order to the help the government meet its climate change CO2 reduction targets?

Suddenly, delivering the government’s objectives are the new psychocrats. Unelected, unaccountable psychologists priming the government on how to frighten us into compliance on the one hand and removing conversations about the science in the public media on the other.

The Rapid Response Unit, answerable to No 10, has a remit to include direct rebuttal on social media removing what the psychocrats regard to be harmful content while promoting their own ‘reliable sources.’ It works alongside the Counter Disinformation Cell, which does just that. It removes from Youtube videos of doctors and scientists contravening WHO official guidance.

The media has been instructed to wear us down with a constant bombardment of terrifying and unremitting news.

One of the saddest by-products of the government messaging was the extent to which other people became weaponised. Our neighbours became walking, stalking death-traps, harbingers of terror and death by their mere presence; and that was even when they were masked.

The masking may have restricted some of the potentially fatal vapour droplets (or not, depending again on whose studies you believe) but they also stripped our communities of our humanity. We hid ourselves from each other in an act of communal dehumanisation.

Christians have something to say both about our humanity and the fear of death.

A unique contribution that Christianity makes is to tear off the mask of the biological and animal, and to expose the angelic and the spiritual, as it shares the discovery that human beings are made in the image of God. This unmasking of the inner child of God is one of our greatest contributions to the concept of the sanctity of the individual.

Masks then have two functions. They may (or may not) slow down the droplets of water vapour that carry the Covid infection; but they also dehumanise and hide the humanity of the wearer. For many who have come to suspect the validity of the public information that governments have provided about the virus, the mask has become a sign of submission to a disinformation campaign.

None of the approved medical sources released the news that the Covid virus almost never lived for any length of time on surfaces. Nor did they point to the studies which suggested that most masks were hopelessly inefficient at restricting vapour droplets.

Few voices have dared challenge the political consensus to demand we be given the scientific truth.

The challenge to churches

The problem for the churches was that they were confronted by an epistemological conundrum. Having long claimed to be the stewards of truth, a truth that had provided the foundation for the whole of the scientific revolution, they became too frightened of being blamed for anything to challenge the scientific and political assumptions that underlay the campaigns of fear designed to make the population compliant to government diktat.

The competing narratives about infection rates and mortality rates were wrapped up in a confidence trick designed to quell all contrarians; what became known as altruistic-hypochondria.

‘Don’t kill Granny’ was the ruthless motto representing a wider concern which concentrated on doing everything possible to avoid harming a hypothetical neighbour.

Masks, isolation, bubbles, social rules were all beyond either challenge or discretion because they protected the vulnerable ‘other’. Churches have for a very long time identified with the vulnerable other in their politicisation.

The problem came when what began with protecting one’s own granny was extended to any hypothetical neighbour. But this was a terrifying ‘argument from silence’: you must obey the rules because if you don’t there is no telling who you might harm or kill.

Of course since this is entirely hypothetical, it is unanswerable.

Instead of being over anxious about our own health, we were invited to be perpetually over-anxious without limits about the health of an imaginary person we had not yet met, let alone harmed. This was indeed a kind of hypochondria, on behalf of a hypothetical other. Who could resist such an ethical burden? Certainly not churches who were committed to loving their neighbour, real and imagined.

The psychocrats fed their messages into the public consciousness with such energy even the police began to be unable to tell the difference between law and guidance. They launched an avalanche of prosecutions for people who had breached guidance, but, it turned out, had not broken the law.

Fear was the fog that masked the difference between psycho-pressure and the law of the land.

The theological and spiritual dimension

For the churches, fear was changed from a theological to a social construct. We had become afraid for our neighbours.

What might the churches have been able to offer in this time of confected fear of death? Christians might have been able to bring a degree of stoical Christian comfort to our neighbours, reminding them that the Gospel brings with it the promise of eternal life to those cowering in the shadow of death.

We might have had something realistic to say about the inevitability of death; that all these measures could do was postpone death, not save us from it. But for our secular neighbours, death was too taboo to even be discussed let alone confronted; and the churches have long since exchanged a fear of hell for a soft Oprah-like universalism which means everyone gets to heaven, like it or not.

Few voices within the churches dare even say, as CS Lewis did, “it’s a matter of Thy will be done or my will be done” when it comes to confronting our eternal destiny. When churches cease to believe in judgement or the painful consequences that flow from sclerotic hearts that have hardened in their rejection of God, there is little they can say to secular neighbours about the need to make their peace with God.

Jesus recommended learning to fear God who had power to cast the soul into hell instead of those who only had power over the body. The churches on the other hand, directed all their capacity for fear towards ‘causing the death of granny’, and the hypothetical unknown casualty we had yet to meet.

Theologically, however, this was a deeply divisive moment for the Church. It was divided into two. It might best be described as those who favoured immanence against those who prioritised transcendence.

When asked, Jesus ordered the commandments into a hierarchy. First, the love of God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength; then the love of the neighbour.

Most of the churches reversed this priority, driven by the avalanche of media fear.

What we might call the horizontal church put love of one’s neighbour first, and closed the church doors to worship, turning the churches into mausoleums. The love of God, expressed in praise and presence in the sacred places set aside for worship would have to wait.

These churches driven by social fear closed their doors in fear. No matter that rigorous social distancing and gallons of hand gel assiduously smeared over all surfaces promised protection.

Some few churches, mainly Catholic and Pentecostal, prioritising fear of God, worship, awe, the vertical dimension, tried to keep their doors open.

What else might the churches have offered to society that no one else was articulating? If the churches were seriously committed to the welfare of our neighbours in general, why did they not speak up on behalf of those being killed by lockdown?

There was always going to be not only an economic price for lockdown, but the price of those who were refused medical attention and medical care while the NHS boarded up its surgeries and cancelled its operations. Cancer and heart patients in particular were the first but not the only casualties.

The Office for National Statistics estimated that for every Covid death, the lockdown caused two extra deaths because the necessary health service was inaccessible.

The exact numbers of those killed by the unintended consequences of lockdown will be as hard to ascertain as the real numbers of those who tragically succumbed to Covid itself (rather than dying with it but from comorbidities).

If you add to that the devastation caused to the mental health of our psychocrat-terrorised children, it’s a sad judgement on the wisdom, courage and integrity of the churches that they reacted by washing their hands of all guilt for finding and speaking the truth, and simply closed their doors.

This may have constituted a betrayal of both God and neighbour. Death is certainly a terrible threat but it is one that the faith has an antidote to. Faith has a robust and vigorous response to fear itself – and especially the fear of death. This pandemic has been both a missed opportunity and a poor reflection on our integrity.