Lessons learned from the trenches of the COVID crisis, lest we forget
Some Breathing Space for a Debrief
Responding to crisis well requires planning and practice, something I learned the hard way as Code Captain, in charge of the coronary care unit resuscitation team. Our task was to provide immediate response for in-hospital cardiac arrests. When Code Blue was called out on the overhead paging system, we were the ones commandeering elevators, racing down hospital hallways, puffing and pushing the crash cart, white coats flapping and stethoscopes flying. Sometimes we were successful, and sometimes not. But regardless of the outcome, it was our regular practice to debrief afterwards; to sit down together as a team and review the event record, acknowledge what went well, highlight any errors that occurred, and discuss how we might improve our response for the next time, which always came, sometimes even during the debriefing process.
By analogy, since the pandemonium part of the pandemic has passed, and we have entered what appears to be the wake of the COVID crisis, a debrief seems timely. Even though the dust hasn’t fully settled on issues of masking and vaccination mandates, and we medics still remain masked, gowned and seemingly one-disease minded in the hospitals, a certain level of normalcy has returned to society. Workers have returned to work, schools are back in session, restaurants are busy, air travel is possible. So, there is opportunity for some introspection, and a dire need“ for the Christian community in particular to learn from the mistakes made these past number of years and to bolster ourselves for a better response next time. The ambition of this essay is to critically consider the role of the Christian church, defined as the locally gathered body of Bible-centered believers, tasked to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, observe the ordinances, and make disciples“ and its relationship to the state and its laws, as well as to the kingdom of God and its realization. My hope is to emphasize the absolute necessity of Christ’s church at all times, and in particular, during times of duress.
My involvement as a frontline physician during the throes of the pandemic brought me face-to-face with the COVID crisis. While some may be able to look back on these past pandemic years isolated and aloof, and ask, “Crisis, what crisis?” this was not my experience. As part of my work as a cardiologist in a downtown tertiary care center, I helped manage patients on the COVID ward and was involved with critically ill patients dying from an inflammatory storm secondary to overwhelming COVID pneumonia. I saw firsthand the spectre of physical suffering caused by the viral infection: from the bustling, chaotic emergency room, and bursting intensive care unit with ventilated patients two per room, to the makeshift COVID Cabana overflow unit in the repurposed surgical recovery room. I comforted patients on the ward while decked out unrecognizably in personal protective equipment; provided explanations to their families over Facetime connections; came alongside beleaguered colleagues, run ragged by the combined toll of the pandemic’s onslaught and staff shortages; and even mourned the death of a favorite mentor and dear brother in Christ from COVID pneumonia. It was a challenging time, to be sure, and not one to be made light of nor minimized. Plandemic or not, the global spread of the novel COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2), and its accompanying severe acute respiratory syndrome, wrought misery on humanity. As the apostle Paul said of our fallen human condition, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:22), our pandemic time included.
In view of the serious nature of COVID-19, particularly during the first waves of its spread, there were some aspects of the church’s response to the pandemic that were done well. These salutary measures included fostering improved hand hygiene, providing focussed care for the vulnerable, and encouraging segregation of the sick. Viral spread was probably most effectively diminished by the supplying of easy-access antiseptic hand cleanser for parishioner use, refraining from having food and drink, coffee-time fellowship, and reducing the communal handling of the communion elements. Our church minimized such handling by providing pairs of shot glass-sized cups, one nestled in the other with a piece of cracker in the bottom cup, symbolizing Christ’s broken body, and some grape juice in the top, symbolizing Christ’s shed blood set out on a table, one for each parishioner to take. While some churches refrained from celebrating communion during the pandemic (and some have still not reinstated it!), this creative approach allowed us to safely observe this ordinance throughout the entire lockdown ordeal. Although not to everyone’s taste, this adjusted form of celebrating the Lord’s Supper didn’t sacrifice the function of the ordinance, and on grounds of practicality and efficiency, it has become a permanent practice for our congregation going forward.
Additional precautionary measures were adopted by many churches for their higher-risk parishioners who wished to take part in the worship service. These included providing a sparsely occupied cordoned-off area in the sanctuary for their use, or in some cases, a separate gathering room altogether with livestream viewing of the service. For those who were unable to gather, churches retooled their audiovisual equipment to develop an online presence. While no substitute for in-person fellowship, the virtual experience allowed symptomatic parishioners and quarantined patients, as well as high-risk parishioners and shut-ins to participate in the service at some level, being edified by the preaching of the gospel, and encouraged through the corporate worship and prayers.
In addition to their effectiveness, these precautionary measures are commendable on a number of grounds. First off, they have a biblical precedent. While falling short of the stringent COVID health mandates, these simple, primary preventive measures are in line with the instructions Moses gave Israel as part of the holiness code outlined in the Torah (Lev. 13:15), in which he addressed quarantine of the sick and the management of contagious diseases. By contrast to the inflexible umbrella restrictions mandated by government health officials during COVID, with everyone required to physically distance and shelter in sequestered isolation, in ancient Israel, sickness of some did not shut down society for all. Rather, the sick were identified, separated from the community, and quarantined for a given period of time in order to help prevent the spread of disease. All the while, the rest of society were free to go on with life and business as usual, gathering for worship included. And as was painfully demonstrated during our pandemic, quarantining the healthy has been terribly counterproductive for society, has achieved negligible benefits in stopping the spread of a respiratory virus, and has contributed greatly to the extent of suffering.
Second, these precautionary measures make sense, and line up squarely with the focussed protection recommendations as detailed in the Great Barrington Declaration. Even though this open letter was largely ignored by mainstream media when first published in October 2020, this document, drafted by a large group of leading infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, and endorsed by over 50,000 professional signatories (myself included) raised concerns as to the collateral damages of the pandemic, and called for the priority of protection and care to be given to at-risk individuals, rather than having a full societal lockdown. While there has been a great deal of rhetoric pawned off as so-called science these days, making it difficult to know who to listen to and trust, it is important to realize that this group of scientists had little to gain by publishing their recommendations. Rather, they had much to lose, including their reputations, some even suffering professional censorship and vilification.
Lastly, these simple approaches didn’t inhibit the church from carrying on in her essential roles of gathering in-person, proclaiming the gospel, observing the ordinances, and making disciples. While some adjustments to the form of worship may have been undertaken to limit disease spread, the church should have been able to still function in these capacities. Promoting physical health and avoiding disease are important components of our stewardship of the body, and something worthy of our attention. For those churches that kept their doors open, it was important that they heeded the warnings of the medical authorities regarding the virus communicability, and showed a general willingness to make certain precautionary adjustments in order to help protect parishioners from viral spread, and lessen the physical suffering caused by the pandemic.
Of course, the suffering experienced during the pandemic went well beyond the physical realm. Although the infections were challenging enough to manage, from a frontline perspective, what made matters far worse than the direct viral effects were the indirect ones: the extent and degree of existential suffering occurring during the pandemic. Sadly, the lion’s share of this collateral damage was the direct result of governmental attempts to limit viral spread and protect an already dysfunctional healthcare system. This existential misery was experienced by patient and practitioner alike, young and old, those in favour of the mandates and vaccinations, and those who opposed them. Suffering in the form of anxiety, loneliness, fear, frustration, confusion, hopelessness, distress and despair was rife across the board, widespread and nonpartisan.
The Human Cost of Lockdowns
In my work, I cared for countless numbers of lonely patients, hungry for human interaction. After being isolated in their homes or assisted-living facilities and deprived of social connection, I found that patients were quick to opt for an in-person medical assessment over the recommended COVID-19 phone consultation. Many of my patients were unable to see their children or grandchildren for months or even years on end. Patient after patient had lost central friendships in their lives, or were estranged from family members because of personal decisions over the vaccine mandates. Many nursing students and medical residents in my circle were removed from their hard-sought training programs for voicing concerns over the mandates. Some unvaccinated patients were abandoned by the medical system altogether and denied medical care from walk-in clinics, and even from their family physicians of long-standing; others had lost their jobs and were in serious financial distress for refusing to be vaccinated. As well, many of my double-masked and quadruple-plus-vaxxed patients remained panicked beyond reassurance and desperately fearful of catching COVID, their worries driven by the incessant news coverage emphasizing rising case numbers.
The list goes on and on, and all just added to the already staggering pre-pandemic existential crisis of our time; the sorry state of a secularized society who has rejected the Lord of life. Not surprisingly, suicide rates increased sharply during the lockdowns, as did patient requests for doctor-assisted suicide. And then there was the record number of drug overdoses, overwhelming our emergency medical response teams in the field. At one point during the throes of the pandemic, the number of Fentanyl overdose cases in our intensive care unit actually exceeded our COVID cases. And it stands to reason; without meaning or purpose, and continually bombarded by doom and gloom, what would we expect people to opt for? Deprived of any real hope, annihilation or anaesthetic seem the only options. COVID without Christ is but bleak despair.
Tragically, little was done to address this pandemic-related existential suffering. The medical community seemed in no position to effectively meet the deeper needs of patients let alone handle the physical burden of disease. Not only were healthcare providers too consumed with COVID testing and containment to address the psychological stressors of the pandemic, but they also increasingly seem to lack the equipping to do so. This is because the prevailing mindset of secularized medicine has become one of reductionism. Human persons, in all their complex facets and elegant functions, are commonly reduced down to their bare biology. Rather than being taken seriously as whole persons, fearfully and wonderfully made, people are considered in the physical dimension only. During the pandemic, this meant viewing patients as viral carriers to be isolated. Rather than considered as fellow travellers to the grave, patients are commonly depersonalized and referred to by some piece of their person: “another heart patient” or “the hip in room 9.” Specialists like myself tend to be the worst offenders. Satisfying ourselves by dealing with that puny portion of the patient that we are considered expert in, we neglect the greater needs of the whole person. Even general practitioners fall prey to the pragmatic attraction of reductionism by limiting their patient assessments to only one problem per visit. This is part of the reason why expertise in one field doesn’t translate to expertise in another, and why unelected health officials should never have been given the kind of power they had during COVID. As Will Rogers wryly observed, there is nothing as stupid as an educated man, once you get off the thing he was educated in.
Although exceptions exist, as a long-time medical educator, my observation has been that medical trainees receive poor modelling in addressing existential suffering in patients. Beyond a shallow shrug of the shoulders and some empty utterance like “it is what it is,” modern-day medics concerningly skirt past their patients’ mental anguish, and get to the real business of medicine, ordering more tests. Worse still, when these issues are addressed, Canadian physicians are encouraged to raise the option of MAiD (Medical Assistance in Dying) with their patients as a means of remedy. Of the 30,000 Canadians who have received assisted suicide since the legalization of euthanasia in our country, the majority, “representing some of our most vulnerable citizens“ were given their fatal injection during the pandemic, receiving death over compassionate care. To underscore the scale of our euthanasia program, the State of California, which legalized euthanasia at a similar time to Canada and has roughly the same population, had 486 deaths from euthanasia in 2021, by contrast to our 10,064. The upshot of all this is a needlessly expensive whirlwind of testing, and in the end, a fragmented delivery of so-called medical services, with patients all-too-commonly falling through the proverbial cracks. It would seem then, that in the contemporary practice of medicine, Dr. Edward Trudeau’s long-held aphorism of the role of the physician “to cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always“ has been exchanged for an impoverished role “to offer MAiD sometimes, order investigations often, and test for COVID always.”
The Absent Christian Witness
It wasn’t just the medical community who dropped the ball in failing to address existential suffering during the pandemic; the church did as well. This is particularly disappointing since the church is uniquely suited to address this sort of pain. Working through existential suffering is our thing; it is what we do. Empty platitudes are for the secularists. The Christian worldview faces the problem of pain square on, and provides the only serious response. The biblical answer to suffering is not one of indifference, denial, defeat, or shoulder shrugging. God has not abandoned us to the world of despair, but rather, the pains of suffering are ultimately answered by God’s intimate involvement in the human condition at the cross. As Martin Luther said, “When you look around and wonder whether God cares, you must always hurry to the cross and you must see Him there.” Christ and Christ alone, is our only hope in life and death. Any meaningful response to our existential suffering that doesn”t involve Jesus will fall short. Only Christ knows the full weight and depth of all our suffering, and only His atoning work on the cross can provide the needed remedy. The cross reminds us that God is not distant from human suffering but has become part of it, and draws near to us in our suffering. This abiding presence of the Lord provides meaning in our turmoil and comfort in our troubles. The apostle Paul exhorts us to share this gift, saying, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
As followers of Jesus, then, we are expected to live lives worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1), by showing care and concern to those in need. While quiet devotional time and solitary prayer are important spiritual disciplines for our faith maturity, privatized personal piety alone is insufficient for faithful discipleship. Our faith in Christ is personal, but not private. Our mandate is to bring people to the Lord and bring the Lord to people, both by spreading the gospel to the unreached, and by influencing our surrounding culture. Although church growth is desirable, and planting new church communities is central to our mission focus, our principal task is not to get people into our church facilities, but into Christ’s kingdom. And the two are not synonymous. Even though the church of Christ and His kingdom are intimately related, they are not one in the same. The church is the bride of Christ, and central to God’s plan for humanitys redemption, but represents only one sphere in the vast configuration of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is far more comprehensive in content, and can be thought of as the reign of God by Jesus Christ over every aspect of the created order. As detailed by reformed New Testament theologian, Herman Ridderbos, the Kingdom denotes the consummation of history, and has cosmic dimensions, filling time and eternity.
Appreciating this distinction between Christ’s church and His kingdom enables us to embrace our role as Christ’s ambassadors. It helps us understand that our faithful obedience to Christ entails more than our participation in the local church, and even more than our efforts to evangelize. Our calling is to live out our faith in every area of our lives at work, in school, in our social circles, during our times of leisure, when we are abroad or around our dinner table. As Joseph Boot emphasizes, “the detailed application of this is the calling of every believer, that every province of human life and thought be brought under the sway of God’s kingdom. Evangelism is important, to be sure, but we don’t stop there. We need to disciple the new believers and equip them so they can live Christianly in their respective spheres of influence.
Likewise, cultural engagement and influence are laudatory, but we don’t stop there either, but need to press on to make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded. Ours is not a choice between the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:18-20), or the cultural mandate to glorify God by exercising dominion over the earth, and developing its latent potential (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:15), but to give attention to both. The two are very much connected. It is not an either/or undertaking, but a both/and mission. We are called to both share the Word of grace and truth and faithfully reflect this grace and truth to the world. This entails leaving our comfort zones, rolling up our sleeves, and co-labouring with the Holy Spirit in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20); giving an answer to the hope that is within us (1 Pet. 3:15), visiting the lonely and the shut-in (Matt. 25:36), laying hands on the sick and praying for them (Jas 5:14), offering hospitality to others (Heb. 13:2), and not giving up meeting together as a body of believers (Heb. 10:25). These aren’t merely passing suggestions, to be undertaken if we have time or inclination and everyone’s COVID negative. They are Scriptural commands, which were given to the early church to follow, and are directly applicable to us today, particularly in times of crisis. So, if this is the case, then where was the church, just when it was needed the most?
“Where, indeed?” were my thoughts, as I saw despairing patient after despairing patient in the hospital and at my clinic. When I asked of their support network, if they had family, local community, attended church, the common response was a shaking of the head, sometimes with tear-filled eyes. Those that had church connections were mostly disconnected during the pandemic. While some took in online sermons, gone was the in-person support and care, the human touch, the listening ear, the group praying with one another, and the intimate fellowship. With a few bold exceptions, the church had largely abandoned her parishioners, and the aching void was evident. It seemed that the fear of catching COVID was reason enough for many Christians to not only shut down worship and shelf the ordinances, but to give up visiting the shut-ins, offering hospitality, or gathering at all. Self-preservation took priority over being salt and light in the world. The Great Commission got put on hold until reported case numbers diminished. Outreach to the lonely and comfort for the distressed would need to wait for the health minister’s “all clear.”
Of all the unprecedented actions carried out during the pandemic, as a follower of Jesus, this inaction of His church is the most disturbing. Such an anemic response on the part of the church was certainly not the case historically. During the 3rd century Cyprian plague, for example, when the scourge of smallpox was claiming thousands of lives in Rome on a daily basis, the church played a central role in response to the suffering. As recorded by Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, taking charge of the sick, ministering to them in compassion while others behaved in the very opposite way; they pushed the sufferers away and even fled from their loved ones. Down through history, from natural disaster to war to pestilence, the church of Christ has been there responding to the sick and needy as to the Lord. It was the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that motivated Christians to boldly act and to selflessly serve others. They worshipped and obeyed the Holy Triune God and followed his commands, rather than bowing to the idol of safety, and following the trite trilogy, be kind, be calm, be safe.
Despite the fact that the initial sky-is-falling COVID predictions proved grossly exaggerated, and the risk factors for serious infection were identified early on, many within the church still strongly supported the mandates and lockdown measures implemented by the government. They held on to the secular belief that the COVID virus represented an ultimate threat, and something to be feared above all else, Almighty God included. As a result, they agreed with the restrictions placed on church numbers and worship practices, including mandatory masking, attendance taking, and vaccine passports, as well as the physical distancing of parishioners within and between pews, the refraining from singing praises to the Lord or partaking in His ordinances of communion or baptism. Their agreement even included the closure of churches, pending an arbitrary decline in intensive-care COVID cases. Since “it’s the pandemic, after all,” they believed that all of these actions were quite reasonable and perfectly justified. Even though scriptural commands were defied, church communities were divided, and suffering was dire, they were convinced that the ruling authorities had the welfare of the populace in mind and that their actions demonstrated a striving for the common good. In essence, they were lulled into believing the secular myth of neutrality that the government holds to an unbiased position, and operates in a noble impartial fashion. Of course, one need only consider the recent legislations which have been prioritized and pushed through parliament to recognize the naivety of this assumption.
While the population was riveted to the news reporting of COVID case numbers, the government strategically made significant strides to advance its detrimental agenda. As the population fiddled with COVID home-testing kits, the Liberal Government of Canada pronounced abortion an œessential service,  expanding both mode and ease of abortion access; removed so-called safeguards for doctor-assisted suicide, expanding MAiD eligibility criteria; and made it illegal, with penalty of prison, to counter the LGBT gender-bending narrative, passing policies that advance rights and equality for Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and additional sexually and gender diverse (2SLGBTQi+) lobby groups. In keeping with the ascribed words of Winston Churchill to never let a good crisis go to waste, our government wasted not a moment of the pandemic. While some may prefer to think otherwise, bias is inherent in all human decisions, and there is a worldview foundation underlying every interpretation. Either Christ is considered Lord and given ultimate authority, or he is not and authority is given to autonomous man. Although our governing authorities would prefer us think otherwise, there is no middle neutral ground from which they operate.
Aware of the government’s hidden agendas and the limited effectiveness of the mandates, many in the church still defended following the letters of the government’s ever-changing laws. They remained undeterred in their government allegiance, even when the authorities seized power by inappropriately enacting emergency measures that canceled societal freedoms of movement, assembly, and speech, and violated bodily autonomy with vaccine strongarming, and even when the government reduced the church of Christ to a mere non-essential, on the same plane as a bingo hall or beauty salon. Despite all of these clear overreaching and coercive tactics, they exhibited an unquestioning submission to the State. They were of the mindset that a Christian’s duty is to abide by the decrees of the governing authorities, even if those pronouncements are clearly harmful, and even if contrary to biblical commands. In essence, to grin and bear it, no matter what. Ironically, they attempted to bolster their argument by quoting from the Bible (Rom. 13:1-5), using Scripture to counter Scripture.
The Inescapably Political Church
Nonetheless, despite this contradictory methodology, they raised some important points. It is certainly true that we are to submit to the governing authorities, as Apostle Paul admonishes (Rom. 13:1). The government is, indeed, a God-ordained institution, and has been given the sword for a reason: to keep the peace. As such, the government is a servant of God for our good. It needs to be highlighted, however, that the apostle Paul is referring to the governing authorities in the general sense, and not in the particular. He is addressing the institution of civil rule rather than a for-instance example, and speaking to the God-ordained office, not a certain officer. In this passage from the book of Romans, he is exclusively discussing the nature and obligations of civil government in general, as well as our obligation to this God-ordained sphere of authority in general. Paul also emphasizes that there is no authority except from God, so that the government operates as a delegated authority under God. Like a parent of a family, a teacher in a school, or an elder in a church, the governing authorities are held accountable and not an authority unto themselves. As such, the powers exercised by a government have certain limits. If those boundaries are breached, they are no longer functioning as God’s servant, and are no longer deserving of our submission. As Francis Schaeffer wisely said, “The State is to be an instrument of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority, and as such, it becomes lawless and is tyranny.” Take the American slave trade and Nazi Germany as examples.
Similar to the church, then, the government represents only one sphere in God’s kingdom, and not a kingdom unto itself. Both the church and state have limited jurisdiction to operate within their God-ordained roles and under His over-arching sovereignty. The church is not to infringe on the government, and the government is not to dictate to the church. In this sense, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the need to “build a wall of separation between Church and State.” This is not to say that one’s faith shouldn’t influence one’s political decisions nor impact the views of those in office. Rather this “wall” affirms the freedom of religion as per our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and stands to prevent the government from influencing or interfering with our religious practice. Likewise, it prevents the church from seizing the reigns of power and establishing institutional ecclesiastic control over society. This biblical relationship between church and state has been best detailed by Abraham Kuyper, as sphere sovereignty, in which “the Sovereignty of the Triune God is over the whole Cosmos, in all its spheres and kingdoms, visible and invisible.” This includes not only the church and government, but also healthcare. It is fine for healthcare leadership to provide the church with recommendations as to best practices during COVID, as did the Centers for Disease Control did in the United States, but completely outside their jurisdiction to have those recommendations enforced, effectively shutting down the church. As C.S. Lewis wisely said, “Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so, but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than any other man.”
In conclusion, the church is essential and God’s primary means of revealing His kingdom to a needy world. Therefore, it is essential that the church of Christ continue to function as the church of Christ, unhindered, come hell or health minister! While we are called to respect and honor God-ordained authority, we are not to acquiesce to authority counter to God’s decrees and design, but be prepared to resist immoral laws, injustices and oppression. Where there is illegitimate authority, that which counters Scripture, the church is called to challenge and resist it, particularly when it interferes with the lives of God’s people, the worship of God, and the ecclesiastical governance and ordinances. As Francis Schaeffer noted, “In almost every place the Reformation had success there was some form of civil disobedience.” This will very likely lead to increasing degrees of church persecution. But staying safe is not our primary goal. We have gospel work to do. Existential suffering remains a central issue and we are in the midst of a mental health tsunami with no imminent signs of relief. And we must not forget, since the very beginning of the church, faithful Christians have resisted the state when it has deviated from its God-prescribed functions or when unjust rulers have implemented policies that are against God’s mandates, even at the cost of their own lives. We must also be prepared to stand firm. And as we do, we should be bolstered by Jesus’ assurance that “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
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