What is the church’s role at this point of the pandemic?

What is the church’s role at this point of the pandemic?

Without community there is no liberation- Audre Lorde

It is fair to say that most of us are sick of hearing and talking about COVID-19. After over two years of it dominating every aspect of our lives, we are ready to simply forget about COVID-19 and move on. But there are people within our society for whom ‘moving on from COVID-19’ is a luxury that they cannot afford. Despite our successful vaccination program, there are many people- including people with a disability or a chronic health condition and the elderly- who remain at a high risk of serious complications and death from the virus. In our ‘COVID-19 fatigue’, Australia has removed almost all our public health protections against the spread of the virus. These decisions have come at a price for those who remain high risk to complications from COVID-19- their ability to safely participate in society. This includes full participation in worship activities of churches.

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald addressed the impact of removing COVID-19 protections. A comment from one of the contributors to this discussion particularly struck me. Reflecting on whether it was ethical to remove COVID-19 protections for the most vulnerable and rely instead on individual personal responsibility, Professor Paul Komesaroff from the Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society spoke of there being “no inherent reason to prefer an argument about individual freedom(s) over one in favour of care or love for our neighbours.” These comments were challenging as they directly invoked the Judeo-Christian concept of loving one’s neighbours as representing one of the sides of this debate- the side which focuses on protection of the most vulnerable over our own discomfort. 

But are church communities implementing measures to ensure the protection and inclusion of those at a high risk of COVID-19 in our faith communities? Or are we compelled by fatigue and our own arguably reduced risk to COVID-19, forgetting to have concerns for those who cannot move on from COVID-19.

To explore these questions, I sought to understand the experiences of those who remain vulnerable to COVID-19.  I was fortunate to speak with a public health expert from the University of New South Wales as well as a member of the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) who is highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

For many people, 2022 represents the year that we moved on from COVID-19.  On a government level, on October 14th Australia ended one of its final protections against the spread of the virus -a mandatory isolation period for people who test positive. While the decision was criticised by health experts as ‘illogical’ , many felt that it put COVID-19 in the ‘review mirror’ and media coverage lauded the decision as a ‘victory for common sense’. The decision to drop mandatory isolation reflects sentiment among many Australians that COVID-19 is in fact over. For some time, coverage of COVID-19 in the media has been limited, governments no longer release daily coverage of cases and COVID-19 deaths, and we see fewer people wearing masks in indoor locations. 

While for many COVID-19 is spoken in past tense, nobody told that to the virus itself. Far from being the year the pandemic has ended, 2022 has been by far its deadliest. In Australia we have lost approximately 13,433 lives to COVID-19 in 2022, which staggeringly represents over 85 percent of the total Australian deaths to COVID-19 since the commencement of the pandemic. And this figure is anticipated to rise to over 20,000 lives lost to COVID-19 before the end of the year. COVID-19 is now Australia’s third most common cause of death in 2022, trailing only heart disease and dementia.

Another truth which we are overlooking is that a large proportion of people who have died are people who had a disability or a chronic health condition.  While limited Australian records are published, experts estimate that over 60 percent of our total COVID deaths have occurred within the disability community.  

I spoke to Professor Gemma Carey, a Research Director at the University of New South Wales about how people with a disability and those with health complications are responding to the ongoing risk of COVID-19. In addition to being an expert in public health, Professor Carey lives with an autoimmune condition and is at risk of serious complications should she contract the virus. Professor Carey shared that many people who vulnerable to COVID-19 are being compelled to continue to live in lockdowns to avoid infection. Professor Carey shared that her family has been in isolation since the commencement of the pandemic:

 “When everyone was in lockdown it was hard but there was camaraderie. Its much more isolating now. The primary risks for my family and I are indoor venues. And the dropping of public health measures and community concern around COVID-19 only heightens this risk for me and many others”.  

Professor Carey’s experiences of increasing isolation are shared by others in the community who are at high risk of serious complications. In a recent Opinion Piece in the Guardian Australian Craig Wallace, the head of policy at Advocacy for Inclusion wrote “many of the people that I represent are now approaching their third year of lockdown by proxy. In many ways, for them, the situation feels much worse than 2020 – the community has moved on, but the virus hasn’t – leaving us trapped and exposed”.

The Uniting Church seeks… to embody a community life that in its theology and practice is accessible to all people; (Uniting Church in Australia, Disability Access Guidelines)

“Society is so sick of talking about COVID-19 that we are choosing to ignore that people vulnerable to it exist. In doing so we are abdicating any responsibility to protect them” (UCA member)

As Professor Carey highlighted, one of the key sites of exclusion for people vulnerable to COVID-19 are indoors locations. Research shows that the highest risk of transmission occurs in environments where there is a combination of:

  • Large gatherings of people in an enclosed space for a long period of time.
  • People doing activities like exercising, singing, or shouting.
  • People not wearing quality (N95) masks. 

As you will immediately recognise, the description of large gatherings and people singing (and sometimes shouting!) fits perfectly for how worships services are run in most congregations.

Given the activities of a worship service create high risks of COVID-19 transmission, I sought to explore what the UCA Synod of NSW & ACT are doing to assist congregations to be COVID safe.  I found that the UCA Synod of NSW & ACT recognised early on during the pandemic the importance of questioning how the church ‘involves the most vulnerable in our community, noting .. gathering…will likely remain high risk, for the foreseeable future.’ With the re-opening of face-to-face services, the Synod produced a ‘COVID-19 Guidance for Churches’ which includes information on COVID-19 and how services were required/advised to have ‘COVID-19 safe Congregations’. This resource remains available to download on the Synod of NSW & ACT website (last updated June 2022).

However, a spokesperson for the UCA Synod of NSW & ACT indicated that the encouragement for services to be considerate of the impact of COVID-19 has eased alongside the removal of public health protections in Australia.  Congregations being less considerate of COVID-19 has meant many have removed online options for worship participation, no longer encourage worshippers to wear masks and masks are no longer being worn in services by Ministers and church leaders.

What has been the impact of the relaxation of COVID-19 procedures within churches on those who remain high risk to serious complications from the virus? It appears that the same exclusion Professor Carey speaks of occurring in broader society is being replicated in many of our church congregations. I spoke to a Uniting Church member who shared their experience of having risk factors which prevented them from participating in the life of the church “Society has developed a narrative that COVID is over and sadly it is one that churches seem to have readily adopted.  Now many congregations are ignoring the risks of COVID-19 to the detriment of people and their families who are vulnerable to serious health risks”. 

The Uniting Church rightfully sees the inclusion of all people at the heart its purpose and values. But are our current practices in relation to COVID-19 promoting inclusion for those with ongoing serious risks from the virus?  And what are we prepared to do to care for people at risk in our church communities?

Seeking inclusion for people vulnerable to COVID-19 in our church communities is in fact very easy to do.  It can be as simple as like retaining/reinstating online options for people to participate in worship services and considering holding some services outdoors.  Being a church focused on inclusion means we should be at the forefront of modelling the health advice in relation to COVID-19. 

This includes actively encouraging the use of high quality (N95) masks by providing them to members of the congregation and for mask usage to be modelled by ministers and congregation leadership. Additionally, congregations can reduce the risk of COVID-19 by seeking advice about ventilation of indoor spaces and purchasing portable HEPA purifiers (which significantly reduce the chances of COVID-19 transmission).

These measures cost us very little. But the cost of society and churches not being COVID-safe is considerable for those who remain highly vulnerable to the virus.

Chris Lewis- Hartley


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