When the lockdown is lifted, will we return to what we knew, or will a ‘new normal’ emerge, one that embraces the poor, lonely, marginalised, disadvantaged and vulnerable?
By Synod Ethics Committee
COVID-19 has sharpened our focus on wider public issues that have existed in Australia for some time: the inequality that exists between different sections of our community, how the value of human life is defined, the fear of death and the process of dying, racism, and more.
We have been reflecting on what it means to go back to “normal” post- COVID, and whether it might simply signal a return back to Egypt, rather into a new future.
“Returning to normal” and “easing of restrictions” have become part of our COVID language, but returning to normal could be viewed as a luxury, and not something to be taken for granted.
In the Book of Ezra, we read about the rebuilding of the temple after the destruction, the reclaiming of culture.
Chapter three describes a time of joy, where the young rejoice at the laying of the new foundations, and lament, as the elders grieve what had been, what they had lost. The voices of joy and lament live alongside one another, with neither silencing the other.
Such a vision may ask questions of us at this time: How will we ensure no voice is drowned out as restrictions are eased and we emerge into a changed world?
How will we ensure the lament will be heard as clearly as the celebrations? And how might the people of God work to turn songs of mourning into songs of joy.
Before COVID-19, inequalities existed with regard to educational opportunities experienced by different sections of our community and the lockdown-enforced home-schooling highlighted again that technology considered essential for learning is either absent or difficult to access for many.
How can Christian communities ensure no child is left behind like this again?
When Jesus placed the child into the midst of the discussion on who is the greatest, that child remained silent, without a voice, a symbol of vulnerability. As restrictions are eased and students return to places of education, they must not be made silent as decisions are made on spending priorities.
The inequalities around employment are exacerbated in the current climate and yet the message of Christian faith is we are all members of the household of God.
Many workers have been able to work from home during the lockdown, but almost one million Australians have lost their jobs since physical distancing began. What will a return to “normal” mean for them?
Those in casual employment are more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than those in full-time or permanent employment. This imbalance of vulnerability already existed pre-COVID, but is being revealed in the long queues at Centrelink offices around the country.
The lockdown has also exposed the kinds of work that really are essential – and this often equates to those jobs that are poorly paid. They have maintained the structures of society through emptying rubbish bins, stocking supermarket shelves, cleaning public spaces and hospitals, and driving delivery vehicles.
We learn from the gospel stories that Jesus spent time with those who were overlooked, considered without value by the broader society. Jesus blesses these people, eats with them, and spends time with them.
Will the community continue to recognise such truly essential workers after restrictions are lifted, or will they become anonymous once more?
There is an opportunity to revisit the system of support for those on low or no income, but there is also a fear there may not be an appetite for that once COVID-19 is under control, that our community’s most vulnerable people will be discarded still.
An example is how those who are homeless are being accommodated in safe housing. The dignity of the person is recognised through such action, but the longer-term options and support available to them remains as uncertain as it was before.
The United Nations has estimated the pandemic will push 130 million people globally to the brink of starvation as supply chains break down, and if an outbreak did occur in a developing nation with limited running water and poor sanitation, it could not be controlled.
There is also criticism of some nations behaving bilaterally rather than showing global leadership, particularly around the development of a vaccine – knowledge which needs to be shared, regardless of national borders.
There are calls for an international inquiry, not a scapegoating exercise, to draw lessons from this time. This is an opportunity to acknowledge our shared humanity and respond accordingly.
As borders close, both nationally and at state levels, and as we keep physical contact with others to a minimum, the question of who is my neighbour may be difficult to answer.
If it is the one who shows mercy to the injured, how does this sit with closing our doors and borders to the outside world, crossing the road to avoid other people on our exercise walks?
Relationships are key to our wellbeing, but those without access to IT or the skills to use such technologies are at higher risk of becoming even more isolated.
Neighbours may be willing to drop in a “viral kindness” card and drop off some shopping, but often a listening ear is the greatest gift. Will that be offered to those needing to be heard once the busy-ness of life returns?
The question of neighbour is highlighted also the increase in racist attacks being reported and experienced. The current situation is revealing entrenched racist attitudes that exist in the wider community.
Examples include the description of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”, and public attacks on people of Asian appearance and accusations that they are automatically carriers of the virus.
How will we reconcile this with our understanding of shared humanity?
There are questions too around whether or not a new definition of economic growth might be developed through the lessons learnt at this time, and a model developed that ensures humans and the planet co- exist harmoniously.
When restrictions are lifted, will the needs of the whole planet be taken into account, or will the expectations of the most wealthy humans be prioritised?
In 1527, as the bubonic plague hit Germany, Martin Luther argued that those engaged in spiritual ministry had a responsibility to remain with those who were sick. However, during the lockdown, leaders of religious communities and other pastoral and spiritual carers have not been permitted to have physical contact with their “flock”.
In a recent article, Trevor Hart describes the way Christians have always felt called to attend to the sick and dying, with physical touch being an important aspect of this care.
Just as Jesus touched those with leprosy and challenged social and cultural etiquette, and just as Jesus treated such with dignity and thereby restored their humanity, people of faith are challenged not to stay away.
There are, of course, sound scientific reasons to stay away, but what is the impact on the dignity of those who are dying and who cannot be held or touched without personal protective equipment?
Such difficult decisions are further complicated because staying away can also be a form of love for our neighbour, making sacrifices so that others are not infected.
Instead of showing love for our neighbour by crossing the road like the Samaritan man, love is shown by keeping our distance and crossing to the other side. And here we are brought face-to-face with the need for real discernment. The answers are not clear.
COVID-19 has not created these issues, but it has made them more visible. People who are homeless may now be housed with dignity, but that is temporary whilst this situation exists.
Educators are creating curriculum resources and developing new ways to engage with students, but these rely on the technology and equipment that many lack.
Indigenous populations are at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 and Indigenous people live far more interconnected lives than non- Indigenous people, so social distancing is a very difficult change to adopt.
The planet is showing signs of some healing as the world has slowed down, but that won’t last without a long-term sustainable economic, industrial, and environmental plan.
When the world returns to “normal”, will the voices of lament be heard, or will they again be drowned out by those who have retained economic power?
Will the inequalities that existed pre-COVID–19 widen further or will they flatten?
Will the definition of “neighbour” remove some walls and overcome the racial and cultural hostilities that exist across this land and elsewhere, or will such hostilities continue to fester?
What is the Gospel calling the Church to be today?
The Synod Ethics Committee comprises Brendan Byrne, Chris Dalton, Claire Dawe, Daniel Farnsworth, Jason Goroncy, Jiny Lee, Derek McDougall and Sani Vaeluaga.
This article originally appeared in the June edition of Crosslight. To read the full magazine, click here.