Monday, May 25, 2020

Neglected Impact of the Pandemic

Last week, more than 600 medical doctors signed and submitted a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump. They were asking him to end the “national shutdown” aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The doctors feared that the widespread orders keeping businesses closed and kids home from school, would result in “exponentially growing health consequences.”

The letter outlines a variety of consequences that the doctors observed resulting from the coronavirus shutdowns. Some of these concerns include patients missing routine check-ups that could detect heart problems or cancer. Doctors also feared the increase in substance and alcohol abuse.

In late April, a survey was done in the United States, using a standard measure of mental distress. For instance, a respondent was asked how often he/she felt sad or nervous in the last month. The results were compared with a sample of demographically similar people in 2018. The results were staggering.

The 2020 participants were eight times as likely to screen positive for serious mental illness. Some 70% of the respondents met criteria for moderate to serious mental illness, compared with 22% in 2018. Clearly, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on mental health.

My studies would seem to indicate, that whereas the pandemic has had a greater impact on the physical health of the elderly, the same pandemic has had a greater mental impact on younger adults. Younger adults have experience a ten-fold increase in serious mental distress, compared with studies done in 2018. Meanwhile, adults sixty and older, had a much smaller increase in serious mental health issues.

The true impact of the pandemic on mental health will take some time to surface. Instances of alcoholism, homelessness, suicide, heart attack or kidney failure are poised to increase. Increases are already evident in unemployment, drug addiction and domestic violence. Over a longer period, we would be adding to the list unplanned pregnancies, poverty, and a variety of abuses.

The solution to the above social challenges is not simple. Should governments lift restrictions in order to avoid the mental health issues? If they do, they run the risk of facilitating the spread of the pandemic. Agreed, a more cautious approach is preferred. But what does that mean?

I believe our first responsibility is to preserve life. More medical resources should be available to the more vulnerable in our society. Guidelines for proper hygiene and physical distancing must be observed, human life must be preserved. However, the restrictions required for preserving lives among the more vulnerable, must be balanced with the lessening of restrictions among less vulnerable communities.

Some mental health issues can be corrected with time, loss of life cannot. Death is final. Death is devastating. Hence, we need to celebrate more when persons overcome the claws of this killer virus. The media is too obsessed with the death count rather than with the recovery count. Stories of recovery generate hope. Stories of recovery celebrate life and recognize heroes and heroines in the medical field.

Media intelligence company Meltwater has been tracking some of the stories that are not gaining as much media attention. Meltwater contends, “as news and social media continues to talk about growing concerns and the impact that the coronavirus has had on society in terms of restricted border entry, travel bans and disruptions to the economy, there have been far less media mentions when it comes to the recoveries that have been made.”

Meltwater’s studies show that stories of recovery represent one of the four least reported areas of the pandemic. With 26.1 million news articles talking about the coronavirus across the globe, only about 5,000 of those news articles have mentioned ‘recoveries’ in relation to the virus. On social media, while 223 million mentions have been made on the coronavirus, only about 8,000 of those mentions talk about recoveries, compared to the social media mentions that include ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘death’.

I believe, included in the use of the term recoveries, most references would likely be about economic recovery and not necessarily of persons who have recovered from the virus. In other words, the media is not enamored with stories of hope. Instead, we have been saddled with statistics of death and defeat.

Should data on sermons be available, one wonders, where would the sermonic emphases be placed? Would the emphasis be on restoration, recovery and transformation? Is it possible that we are hearing too much from our pulpits about judgement and the need to repent? Then, who is mending the broken-hearted? Who is taking good news to the poor? Who is helping to release the oppressed? Affirmative answers to these and many more questions were evident in the ministry of Jesus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to rearrange our plans for this holiday weekend. I pray that our unplanned schedules will include much time for reflection on the impact of the pandemic. Let us not be overcome by statistics of death and defeat, and embrace stories of hope and optimism.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Get Ready - Another Tragedy Expected

Reputable hurricane forecasters predict that the 2020 Atlantic basin hurricane season will produce “above normal activity”. We could expect sixteen named tropical storms, eight of these will become hurricanes. The season begins in less than a month.

Just like wind, rain and even earthquakes, hurricanes are necessary acts of nature. If nature is not allowed to do its thing, various ecological imbalances would occur. So, just as we protect ourselves from rainfall, we must protect ourselves from other acts of nature. Thankfully, science has advanced to the point where we can get early warning about when to expect some acts of nature.

At times, science is unable to accurately predict natural disasters. For instance, some years ago, two scientists in Italy resigned their posts with the government's disaster preparedness agency after a court in L'Aquila sentenced six scientists and a government official to six years in prison. The court ruled that the scientists failed to accurately communicate the risk of the 2009 quake, which killed more than 300 people.

Because we cannot influence the course of nature, the best we can do is to prepare ourselves adequately to cope with nature. Hence, scientists are expected to make reasonable predictions, from which we can protect ourselves. However, if we build our houses near the mouth of a volcano, we should not complain when it erupts. The same thing is true when we drain wetlands or redirect the course of rivers in order to build our palatial homes.

When God placed human beings on earth He commanded us to take care of the earth – to dress it and keep it (Genesis 2:15). In this way we can be at peace with our environment. However, because of greed, we compromise the need for protection, often ignoring God’s warning and suffer the consequences.

Because of advances in science we are not only able to predict the course of nature, we are able to cooperate with the course of nature. In order to avoid flooding, we implement adequate drainage and erect lakes to compensate for intruding into natural habitat. On the other hand we see the consequences of reckless deforestation. This is what results in uncontrolled flooding and soil erosion.

Rather than accept personal responsibility for the reckless choices we make, some blame God when we are impacted by natural disasters. However, it is not logical to expect God to interfere with things that would violate the purposes of His creation. It is also illogical to expect God to thwart the consequences of our actions.

According to Jesus, wise people prepare for impending disaster. Wise people build on rock, not sand. Wise people know the potential for rain and wind to destroy human habitation. In addition, Jesus contends that wise people know that winds and rain are inevitable – it is nature rejuvenating itself.

However, for a variety of reasons, some persons are unable to prepare themselves sufficiently for the onslaught of nature. Such persons become victims of nature’s fury. Such disasters provide opportunities for care. History is replete with stories that illustrate caring responses to victims of tragedy.

In his book, An Act of God?, my friend Dr. Erwin Lutzer reminds us that “historically, the church has always responded to tragedies with sacrifice and courage.” During the third century, Tertullian recorded that when pagans deserted their nearest relatives in the plague, it was Christians who stayed and ministered to the sick.

Ministering to victims of tragedy is a central part of the Christian message. In preparing his disciples for his return, Jesus talked about being hungry and destitute, and not being cared for by others. But who would dare abandon Jesus? This was his poignant reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). The “least of these” include victims of tragedy.

Agreed, the upcoming hurricane season means the coming of potential tragedy. Let us begin to get ready. Let us prepare for disaster. However, when the best preparation proves to be inadequate, let us be prepared to care for the victims of disaster. It is in ministering to “the least of these” we minister to the Lord.”

Monday, April 27, 2020

Do Churches Offer Essential Services?

The term “essential services” is often used during this COVID pandemic. The term is used in reference to agencies like law enforcement, healthcare, utilities and other community-based services. Another agency that is rarely mentioned is Human Services.

According to the National [American] Organization for Human Services, “the field of Human Services is broadly defined as an agency that meets human needs, through an interdisciplinary knowledge base, focusing on prevention as well as remediation of problems, and maintaining a commitment to improving the overall quality of life of service populations.”

The Human Services profession is one which promotes improved service delivery systems by addressing not only the quality of direct services, but also by seeking to improve accessibility, accountability, and coordination among professionals and agencies in service delivery. The primary purpose of a Human Services professional is to assist individuals and communities to function as effectively as possible in the major domains of living.

Human Services professionals work in community, residential care, or institutional settings providing direct services such as leading a group, organizing an activity, or offering individual counselling. Human Services aim to have clients overcome adversity through strength-based approaches. Approaches that empower clients to make positive life choices, allowing them to reach their full potential.

In responding to COVID-19, many communities have instituted measures that deprive persons of reaching their full potential. For instance, social distancing has resulted in depression and loneliness. Depression is usually characterized by feelings of despair, overwhelm, apathy, accompanied by changes in weight loss or weight gain, disrupted sleep, and increased irritability, anger, or confusion.

When added to the alarming increase of persons losing their jobs and domestic violence, one is not surprised by the increasing use of abusive substances and threats of suicide. One fears that the impact of this pandemic may even be more dangerous than the pandemic itself.

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, churches have been involved in services now defined as Human Services. Throughout her history, churches have provided coping skills to assist people to deal with death, trauma, family conflicts, existential fear, stress and anxiety.

Rodney Stark, in his volume, The Victory of Reason, contends that “Christianity and its related institutions are directly responsible for the most significant intellectual, political, scientific, and economic break-throughs of the past millennium.” Inherent in the Christian mission is the desire to allow persons to reach their full potential.
For this reason, it was not unusual to find the compassionate response of agencies like Samaritan’s Purse to the crisis in New York City. Like so many other Christian groups, there was no need for governments to appeal for help, churches naturally respond to crises. Agreed, the professional terms used in Human Services are different. However, the services offered are identical.

Whereas many in the Human Services are referred to as paid professionals, Christians who offer similar services are simply referred to as volunteers. Like in the Catholic tradition, some leaders with earned doctorates in their areas of service, are referred to professionally as merely brothers and sisters – terms that describe one’s attitude. This is so because, for Christians, one’s attitude to service is as important as one’s skill set in offering that service.

Even while complying with the appeals for social distancing, Christians are finding creative ways to deliver care packages and serve the most vulnerable. Churches continue to encourage and challenge congregants through virtual channels. Having lost the opportunity to meet physically and loose the sense of community, other aspects of community emerge through the internet.

Weekly I find myself participating in gatherings that bring together people from different countries. Among those gathered are elderly folks who are considered shut-ins at face-to-face gatherings. Such occasions have allowed me to address topics like anxiety, loneliness and learning how to cope in difficult times. Try to imagine the positive impact that kind of weekly interaction would have on persons experiencing despair.

Despite the significant contribution of the faith community, our faith and views of life are often relegated to superstition. Constantly, we are pressured to believe that only a scientific approach would get us out of this pandemic. In a spirit of arrogance some commentators tout our achievements and demand of others that they wait on science, before total victory can be discovered.

When would our media analysts realize that the finitude of mundane existence cannot completely satisfy the human heart? As I asked in a recent sermon, to whom do we turn when we feel overwhelmed? Do we wait only for scientific answers? Thankfully, there is another realm from which we hear these words:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights
(Habakkuk 3:17).

Now you determine if the compassionate contribution from churches, that empower people and allow them to reach their full potential, qualify to be an essential service during this pandemic.