One year later: Some musings on post-COVID culture and social ethics

When this column appears, it will be exactly one year since my last trip to the airport. One year since I lectured outside my own home or university. Just under one year since my Mercer classes went to Zoom for the rest of the school year. One year since my Sunday school class and church moved online and never returned in person. Just under one year since my mother-in-law has been allowed to leave her senior living community and come into our home. One full year.

At the time, we thought it might be one month. We had no idea.

This is a post that attempts some forays into the cultural changes and ethical challenges we have witnessed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know I can only speak from my own highly limited and privileged vantage point. But here is what I see:

One disease, multiple experiences. COVID-19 has been a hugely different experience for different populations in the United States. It has ripped through marginalized and minoritized populations with far greater lethality than in other populations. According to the CDC, risk factors contributing to this increased risk of getting sick and dying include racial/ethnic discrimination, inequities in health care access and utilization, disproportionate service of members of racial/ethnic minority groups in frontline “essential” occupations with high-risk exposure, housing conditions such as crowding, sharing of housing and homelessness, and longstanding educational, income and wealth gaps that, for example, mean that many have very limited flexibility to miss work or find less risky work.

“White Blessing” strikes again? Famed Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio got in trouble last summer, rightly so, for trying to rename “white privilege” as “white blessing” in an off-the-cuff comment during a panel discussion. He apologized and withdrew the phrase, but the comment has an odd continuing resonance, in this sense: Disproportionately privileged white people can skate through many hard times, including this pandemic, because of our accrued privileges, which can easily be taken for granted as just more signs of “God’s blessing” if we are sufficiently oblivious.

“Disproportionately privileged white people can skate through many hard times, including this pandemic, because of our accrued privileges.”

The most relevant advantages during this period have been disproportionate access to jobs that can move online without taking much (if any) income loss, accrued wealth that can grow as the stock market grows, spacious housing that enables not just social distancing but mental-health breaks from those with whom we live under lockdown conditions, and better access to needed health care services.

The many sorry meanings of mask defiance. Wearing masks never should have become a political issue, but it did. Donald Trump, of course, bears disproportionate responsibility for making mask defiance a symbol of … whatever it meant, including libertarianism, COVID conspiracy-theory denialism, distrust of pointy-headed (presumed liberal) public health authorities, and perhaps a foolish sense of magical (white people) immunity to a disease that happens to those other, less blessed, people. It is still amazing to me that even after Trump himself got COVID, and many in the White House did as well, one is even today far more likely to find massive mask defiance in MAGA-type gatherings than anywhere else.

Pity the homebound children. In many localities in the U.S. and around the world, kids have not seen the inside of a school classroom for a year. Many public parks and libraries remain closed, often with a weird randomness that makes little sense. Online learning for kids doesn’t work very well except under specific circumstances involving high-quality teacher training, family support and technology; some kids have dropped entirely out of education, either officially or by slipping through the cracks; and the social lives of children have been set back dramatically.

“This has been an awful year for children, but not all children, and least, not in the same way.”

This has been an awful year for children, but not all children, at least, not in the same way. Kids home alone, under-supervised or caring for their siblings, kids who had depended on meals at school, kids without adequate internet access, and kids in high-risk or unstable family and housing arrangements — all have suffered disproportionately during this time. Meanwhile, though, many private schools have managed to open for in-person learning — to paying families — in many of the same counties where public schools are closed.

Failures and successes in government response. In the pandemic year of the Trump presidency, the U.S. federal government only did two things decently well: Congress and the president shoveled money out to families and businesses to help avoid even deeper economic crisis, and Operation Warp Speed helped push vaccine development along at an unprecedented pace.

Now, under a Democratic-led Washington, stressed but now perhaps slightly hopeful Americans are watching in real time as the Biden government and a (barely) Democratic-led Congress attempt to offer a response that meets the needs of a hurting country. If they fail, anti-government sentiment might just go through the roof. But if the government can deliver, it could drain some of the poison out of our politics and help remind us of what government is for — collective effort by our representatives to meet national challenges for the common good. That would be a gift.

Religion’s resilience. One could hardly have imagined that many churches would go a year — and it will be far longer — without meeting in person. Given the fragility of many churches even before COVID-19 hit, it was reasonable to expect we would see a collapse of giving and the death of many congregations. But it does not appear to have happened.

“There are many Christians who are simply unwilling to allow a pandemic to stop them from being a Christian community.”

We still do not know what the ultimate fallout will be when this is finally over, but for now it appears that most churches have made the needed adjustments and demonstrated deep resilience. Zoom has helped. Government aid that included churches helped.

We have learned something invaluable: There are many Christians who are simply unwilling to allow a pandemic to stop them from being a Christian community, even if the only place they gather is on Zoom. When the churches open again, these congregants will be back. Because they never left. That is good news indeed.

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