The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed important truths about our society, truths which are troubling, but which, to those who know their Bible, are not surprising.
I have noted previously the overreaching and intrusive laws passed by our UK government. That similar laws have been passed in many other countries is beside the point that such laws are overreach into family and church lives and that they are disproportionate to the severity of the pandemic.
For example, we saw the Derbyshire police pursuing fines for two women for simply going out for a walk in the fresh air, even when they had endeavoured to follow the rules by travelling separately and keeping distanced. It is fair to say this is disproportionate, isn’t it?
Our government announced plans to imprison people for up to 10 years for breaking quarantine, even when there is no evidence they are ill or have encountered anyone who is ill and can be tested as virus-free. It is fair to say this is disproportionate, isn’t it? (Four former Home Secretaries have said so anyway.)
These are just two examples of the many ways our state has overreacted. But it is important to recognise that such draconian legislation and enforcement has been popular. Polls have consistently supported such stringent measures.
Every day during the pandemic, people have been verbally abused for forgetting to wear a mask, or reported to the police for having family visit or for walking too close to a friend. In workplaces, anonymous accusations about others ‘breaking the rules’ have been made, contributing to suspicious and soured relationships.
The emotion in such reactions is disproportionate to the real risks involved and to the ‘offences’ committed. Why are people behaving like this, and why has our government (and others) reacted as it has?
The obvious answer is that the tedious march of ‘health and safety’ in our society has created and encouraged a risk-averse approach which the pandemic has inflated into this crushing, all-encompassing obsession with ‘keeping safe’. Putting others at risk has become one of the great crimes of our time.
At the workplace, you are named and shamed for using an electrical device which hasn’t been PAT tested; if you go out cycling without a safety helmet, people shout at you. Health and safety procedures have been foisted on churches and workplaces which are disproportionate to real risks. A climate has grown up in the last twenty years of relentless worrying, of seeing risks everywhere and threats around every corner.
Yet we live longer and healthier lives than anyone in history, with workplaces and homes far safer than ever. Think of the open fires in homes, the chimney sweeps, and the unguarded machinery in factories in the past.
So we can see the exaggeration of this health and safety mindset as leading to our highly risk-averse societal behaviour during this pandemic. But we can also see another reason for this development in the way our society has treated the NHS.
Another prominent aspect of our response to Covid-19 has been the focus on making sure that our healthcare system is not overwhelmed, that the NHS is able to cope. Clearly in a pandemic there is going to be a focus on healthcare, and the adaptations we have made in primary and secondary care in the NHS to cope with Covid-19 have been necessary and carried out impressively and effectively.
But beyond these actual delivery elements in hospitals and primary care practices, there has been an approach to the NHS which has rightly been described as religious. The NHS has long been a sacred cow, but its untouchable political status has been further ‘sanctified’ during the pandemic.
In a peculiar inversion, we have repeatedly been urged by the government to ‘protect the NHS’ even though it is there to protect us, to heal us from sickness. There has been a relentless focus on making sure the NHS is not overwhelmed. So large numbers of people have sacrificed their health and lives by not using the NHS and failing to get treatment for non-Covid diseases.
In parallel, across the country, in a spontaneous response to the trauma caused by the virus, people stood on doorsteps and leaned out of windows to clap and to bang pots and pans in homage to the NHS. Children have painted rainbows on pavements and walls, and buildings have been placarded with rainbow posters celebrating the NHS and key workers.
But I believe there is something deeper which explains this religious behaviour towards the NHS and our risk-averseness. We live in a society which believes perfect health is our right and it is the government’s duty to deliver it.
People today share a conviction that sickness and death shouldn’t be allowed, that the wonders of modern healthcare can deliver us from death and bestow immortality upon us. The Health Secretary captured this by declaring that no one should die from the pandemic. Of course, such ideas are absurd and are rarely articulated; but people’s behaviour reveals their view.
And this cultural view that people shouldn’t be sick has seeped into our churches, hasn’t it? It is manifested at prayer meetings when many prayers are made for healing and deliverance from various ailments. We don’t pray like our forefathers for strength to bear with pain and sickness and to prepare for heaven; instead we imitate our society in desiring that sickness be removed.
We have become convinced that cancer and dementia can be defeated (these are the slogans), and logically, that immortality can be achieved. This is our modern manifestation of Babel, striving to become godlike. It is believing the serpent’s lie that ‘you will not surely die’.