This article is here published as a personal view by the author.
Almost never before in history has it been more important for Christians to question ‘the science’. Why? Because your understanding of ‘the science’ will entirely affect your belief about how the worldwide church should respond to the unprecedented measures she is being mandated to obey.
There are currently two very different scientific camps. If the first is correct, for the church to resist governments might seem irresponsible, unloving, and perhaps even foolhardy. If the second scientific camp is correct, such challenge by the church might be of the utmost importance.
First you have the Professor Neil Ferguson camp. According to them, Covid-19 is an unprecedented disease which spreads exponentially and which only lockdowns and indefinite periods of social distancing and mask wearing can keep under control. According to this camp, millions have been saved by lockdowns and if only we had locked down earlier, fewer would have died. We may have a terrible second wave of deaths and so must continue indefinitely with restrictions. It would be irresponsible to do anything else. The collateral damage of these measures (in lives lost and economic damage) is acceptable due to the severity of Covid-19.
Then you have the camp of Nobel laureate Professor Michael Levitt of Stanford University and Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford. According to this camp, Covid-19 is much less severe than originally thought (closer to flu in deadliness). There is a lot of prior immunity in the population and thus herd immunity can be reached at between 10 and 20 percent (and has already been reached in many places). The disease eventually follows a very similar curve whatever measures are taken and does not spread exponentially. This is a very average pandemic in the scheme of things. The collateral damage of the lockdown measures is unacceptable.
If Ferguson’s camp is correct then it might seem sensible for churches to indefinitely and willingly submit to government restrictions. It could be seen that those churches who practiced civil disobedience and opened up when they had been mandated to close were irresponsible, disobedient, unloving to the vulnerable, and a bad witness.
However, if Levitt’s camp is correct our governments could be making one of the biggest mistakes of all time and in doing so are pushing the world into unimaginable poverty, death, and turmoil unnecessarily. It could seem irresponsible, unloving, and wrong for the church to simply submit and allow herself to be endlessly restricted, repeatedly closed, and her members indefinitely distanced with faces hidden while the world suffers.
Rather, especially in places like the UK where a degree of herd immunity may have been reached according to Levitt, it might be better if the church was to think about being a bold voice of hope and reason, offering a place for joyful loud worship and intimate face-to-face, close communion in the midst of this catastrophic overreaction. Perhaps, if Levitt is correct, she shouldn’t simply accept the ‘new normal’ and civil disobedience might be appropriate.
Which science camp has it more right? I believe there is a biblical principle that, when loosely applied, helps us get to the answer: ‘If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.’
How does such a principle apply? Well each scientific camp has made and is making ‘prophecies’ of a sort about what will most likely happen according to their version of ‘the science’. We can test these ‘prophecies’ to assess which camp is more likely to be correct. Let’s test this principle with the data concerning a country that tried to protect their vulnerable and promoted voluntary social distancing but kept almost everything open: Sweden.
First let’s look at the Ferguson camp’s ‘prophecies’ about Sweden. A Swedish university took Ferguson’s model and used it to make the prediction that if Sweden continued with its more relaxed strategy it would result in ‘a peak intensive-care load in May that exceeds pre-pandemic capacity by over 40-fold, with a median mortality of 96,000 (95% CI 52,000 to 183,000) being realized by the end of June’. In contrast, Levitt (when talking to a scientist from the Ferguson camp) predicted on May 21st: ‘You guys are going to have a very hard time when Sweden plateaus at 6,000 deaths.’
Which ‘prophecy’ is more correct? Sweden has nearly plateaued at 5840 deaths (as of 27 August) and is averaging only 1 ICU admission per day now for Covid-19, just as predicted by Levitt. This means that only around 6,000 out of 10 million people in Sweden will have died of Covid-19 (not dissimilar to a bad flu year). Put another way, it seems 99.94% of Swedish people will have survived this outbreak of Covid-19 without lockdown.
Levitt got it right with precision accuracy. Neil Ferguson’s model’s best-case scenario was off by a multitude of around 10 times and his worst-case scenario was off by a multitude of around 30 times. Levitt has made many such predictions about different countries since the beginning of the pandemic. He has made the odd mistake, but unlike Ferguson, generally his predictions have been close to the mark. However, the Ferguson camp’s science is presented as ‘the science’ by the government and much of the media.
Now both camps have made predictions about a second wave. Ferguson’s camp is predicting a potential massive second wave in the UK, perhaps many times worse than the first. Levitt thinks this is ‘crazy’. Your church may well be told to lock down again based on the Ferguson camp’s ‘prophecies’. Can you see how the ‘prophecies’ you trust will have a profound effect on if you think this is a sensible ask, or a government overreach that is stopping you fulfilling your Christian duty to gather?
More information: Both Michael Levitt and Sunetra Gupta have been interviewed numerous times and the videos have ben published online. The websites unherd.com and faith-and-politics.com are also good sources for those wish to think through the issues.
The facts and figures quoted in this article were correct at time of going to print.
Rowina Seidler is a computer science and AI graduate with an MA in religious education. She is a former teacher and current homeschooling mum and is a member of Hambro Road Baptist Church.