16 Sep A Christian Response to the Pandemic
A friend asked me what my views were about the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccinations and lockdowns, and how Christians might respond in the current crisis. In committing my thoughts to writing, I am very aware that these have been become divisive issues among Christians. So I offer these reflections, not as a last word on the topic, but as a report on where I have come to with how Christians might respond to the question of whether to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, and what our response should be to Government lockdowns, including restrictions on public worship. The first part of this article outlines what I understand to be the medical context we are facing, and the second part explores a Christian response.
In the interest of self-disclosure, I am 63 years old, and have received an initial dose of the AstraZeneca (Vaxzevria) vaccine.
- We are in the midst of a global pandemic which has caused at least 4.7 million deaths.
- The pandemic has been evolving rapidly and there is much we still do not know about COVID-19, its impact, the effectiveness of treatments for it, or its future trajectory. This calls for humility and care.
- In Australia, at the time of writing 1,116 people have died from this disease and the mortality rate for diagnosed cases has been about 1.4%.
- In Australia, 7.7% of those diagnosed in the current Delta outbreak have been admitted to hospital, and a fifth of these are in intensive care units.
- As with the flu, the risk of serious illness and mortality due to COVID-19 increases with age and severity of co-morbid conditions such as heart and lung disease and obesity.
- Many people who get COVID-19 have symptoms that last more than a few weeks (long COVID). A study from the Imperial College, London reported that around one third of people still had at least one COVID-19 symptom after twelve weeks. Moreover, the more seriously ill people are with COVID-19, the longer their symptoms are likely to last.
- Despite what was thought earlier, the virus is spread by aerosols, which can circulate rapidly around a room, hanging in the air for hours and, without ventilation, accumulate as people breathe in the room. ‘Surgical’ or cloth face masks can limit (but not fully prevent) the spread of aerosols. KN95 masks are more effective at containing aerosols, but all masks need to be fitted carefully to be effective.
- Initially, many assumed that infection or vaccination might cause lasting immunity, leading to a population’s so-called ‘herd immunity’. However, it has been found that being previously vaccinated or infected is no guarantee against future infection, and both kinds of immunity (whether gained through infection or vaccination) wane over time.
- It is being suggested that to maintain immunity, booster vaccine shots will be needed as frequently as every six months.
- The primary benefit of vaccination is that it significantly reduces the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death.
- A secondary benefit of vaccination is that strengthening a person’s immune system lowers the risk and duration of infectivity and thus the likelihood of infecting others. This benefit is not as significant as the primary benefit – preventing serious illness – but it is still significant.
- Vaccinations can come with serious complications, but these have been reported to be rare. For example, the first AstraZeneca dose has been found to cause lethal blood clots in about one in a million cases: in Australia by the end of August 2021 there had been nine deaths after 9.6 million doses were administered. By contrast, if 10% of the Australian population became infected with COVID-19, at a mortality rate of 1.4% we could expect to see around 35,000 deaths. (This estimate assumes an adequate level of ICU support for the very sick. If ICU’s became overloaded in COVID ‘surges’, the death rate can be expected to be higher.)
Lockdowns and Government Responses
- Governments have used lockdowns in attempts to either eradicate COVID-19 or lower the rate of transmission (“flatten the curve”) to reduce the pandemic’s impact.
- These lockdowns have themselves been damaging for people’s wellbeing and financial security, and they have restricted people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. On the other hand, they have also helped in controlling the pandemic, preventing deaths. In Australia, if we had experienced an infection rate like that in the USA, our death rate would have been in the tens of thousands.
- Governments have a difficult task balancing the cost of measures to prevent COVID-19 spreading with the cost of an out-of-control pandemic. Certainly mistakes have been made in striking the balance, and some lockdown measures have been unnecessary and caused significant trauma.
- It must also be acknowledged that medical treatments have been disputed and there is disagreement among medical professionals about how best to treat and prevent COVID-19. This is to be expected.
Living with COVID-19
- I have come to the conclusion that we will all have to learn to live with endemic COVID-19. In the long term it will not be possible to completely control COVID-19 through lockdown measures. The Delta surge has shown us this. In any case, many of the lockdown measures are not sustainable in the longer term.
- COVID-19 will continue to mutate. This could mean that, as for the seasonal flu, vaccines will need to be continually developed to counter new mutations. This means, for example, that, in order to be effective, ‘vaccine passports’ will have to be kept up-to-date.
- We cannot simply hunker down and wait this out. It now seems increasingly probable that, unlike the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918–1920, COVID-19 will not dissipate after a few years. Rather, it will be added to the list of diseases like cold and flu viruses that human beings have learnt to live with. Moreover the Delta variant has shown us that it can mutate to become more infectious, and more lethal. It takes centuries for human populations to develop genetic resistance to new diseases – that is not a quick process – so the challenge of COVID-19 being potentially lethal, especially to older people, will most likely be with us for generations to come
How Should We Respond?
What is a Christian ethical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including to government lockdown rules, quarantining, and calls, or even demands, that people be vaccinated? We need to strike a balance between individual rights and communal responsibilities. Certainly lockdowns and discrimination against the unvaccinated are restrictions on individuals’ fundamental freedoms. However, these freedoms must be balanced against the responsibility that citizens have to each other.
In what follows I repeatedly use the first person, because this reflects my own thought processes which led to my personal decision to be vaccinated.
The Bible on “Love Your Neighbour as Yourself”
The two biblical principles of “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39) and “treat others as you would have them treat you” (Matthew 7:12) sum up my responsibilities as a Christian to others.
These teachings of Jesus have an important background in the legal code of Leviticus. The command to love others “as yourself” was focused particularly on the most vulnerable: foreigners and the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10, 18, 33). There is also the command not to do anything to endanger your neighbour’s life (Leviticus 19:16). The idea that we should be particularly careful in how we conduct ourselves, being mindful of the impact of my actions on vulnerable others, runs through the Mosaic Law. It is seen, for example, in the command not to injure your neighbour (Leviticus 24:19), the command not to leave a pit in the ground uncovered, lest a neighbour’s ox or donkey fall into it (Exodus 21:33), and the command to return even your enemy’s ox or donkey if you find it wandering off (Exodus 23:4).
The risk of dying from COVID-19 is low (less than 2% if I become infected), so why shouldn’t I be permitted to just take that risk, if I want to? Life involves taking many different kinds of risks: why can’t I be free to make that choice for myself?
There are people who cannot be vaccinated: for example, those undergoing some forms of chemotherapy. However, if I choose not to be vaccinated, there are ethical implications to be considered about how this decision can impact other people:
- As an unvaccinated person I will be several times more likely to get seriously ill or die. This will cause hurt to my dependents, friends and family.
- Willingly risking my life unnecessarily would show a disregard for God’s call upon my life, including my duty – which all Christians share – to use the gifts God has given me to love and serve others.
- If I am not vaccinated and get infected, I could be more likely to be sicker for longer and more likely to transmit the virus to others, causing them harm.
- I do not want to contribute to higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalisation by being unvaccinated, because of their multiple negative impacts on others:
- The impact upon medics and paramedics.
A COVID-19 surge can cause physical and mental damage to overworked medical professionals, including paramedics, GPs, nurses and hospital doctors. Medical professionals are at higher risk of infection: in the UK, around a thousand NHS workers have died from COVID-19 infections, which, it is assumed, were acquired in the course of caring for the sick while other Brits were at home keeping safe during lockdowns.
- The impact upon others who have COVID-19, and those connected with them.
In the face of a COVID-19 surge, authorities need to make contingency plans for when the intensive care wards are overloaded: people whose likelihood of recovery is lower, or whose life expectancy would otherwise be shorter (e.g. because they are older) will have to be palliated (i.e. prepared for death) instead of receiving care designed to save their lives. This is because there will be insufficient staff and facilities to care for the volume of COVID-19 cases in a surge. I would not want, by being unvaccinated, to be one of a surge of cases that causes the deaths of others through lack of available ICU beds.
- The impact upon others with other medical needs, and those connected with them.
During a COVID-19 surge, the needs of other patients can take second place. For example, elective surgeries may be cancelled and ambulance services impaired. Consider the situation of someone having a heart attack: an ambulance is summoned, but the person dies because the paramedic teams were already out dealing with COVID-19 emergencies.
- The public expense.
There is also the expense to the public of providing care to people hospitalised due to COVID-19. Should I willingly take the risk of incurring a very significant public expense when that can be avoided by getting vaccinated?
- The impact upon medics and paramedics.
Responsibilities as Well as Rights
Western cultures tend to be individualist and focused more on an individual’s rights than on our responsibilities to others. Personal identity is thought to be based in an individual’s choices. However, while the infringements upon individual rights caused by lockdowns and vaccination status discrimination should not be dismissed, they must be weighed against the responsibility individuals have to care for others and not cause them harm. My decision not to be vaccinated is a decision that has the potential to cause others harm, as explained above. It is not just my personal, individual decision, and it is not just my life that is at stake.
The Bible does offer Christians a basis for conscientious objection to unjust laws. There is the example of Daniel, who refused to worship idols. On the other hand, the duty of conscientious objection must be weighed against the clear commands in Scripture to respect and honour the authorities (1 Peter 2:13, 17; Matthew 22:21) because “the authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). Believers should seek the wellbeing of the community in which they live (Jeremiah 29:7). These commands, which guide how we related to the state, also need to be considered in the light of the injunctions in Scripture to love one’s neighbours and not cause them harm.
It is undoubtedly true that Christians in our nation are facing growing pressure to conform to ethical principles that are in conflict with biblical faith. There will be times when it will be right to disobey a law that violates human rights, a duty of care to others, or a Christian’s duty to worship and obey God. We must ready ourselves to act when such times come. However, it would be tragic if, in a battle for individual human rights, Australian Christians neglected our baseline duty of care for our neighbours and our duty to cooperate with the authorities in seeking to promote the common good.
Support the Authorities
It is a matter of serious concern that Western nations, including our own, are becoming increasingly divided and fragmented. Trust is in decline, and people feel increasingly alienated. In this context, there has been a whole host of commentators airing conspiracy theories, sometimes using inflammatory rhetoric, to incite Christians to actively reject government measures to manage the COVID-19 crisis.
There are issues on which there must be room for dispute and disagreement, and the application of ‘cancel culture’ to discussions and opinions about the pandemic is a real risk to us all, which should not be discounted. Nevertheless, my attempt to develop a reasonable and biblically well-founded response to the current crisis leads me to seek to support the authorities’ efforts to care for and protect the people of Australia, including to care for the medical professionals who are finding themselves on the front line of this pandemic.
When the state proposes measures that Christians find impinge on their consciences, a first step should be the Daniel 1 response of a reasoned appeal for a fair hearing, not a combative call for civil disobedience. This means that, for example, the introduction of vaccination passports ought not to be rejected out of hand. Moreover, if some people are prevented from attending public events like football matches or church services because they have chosen not to be vaccinated, in the case of churches this need not be seen as a form of religious discrimination or persecution. If religious meetings are treated no differently from other gatherings, such a measure is not intended to target believers on the basis of their faith. The first response of Christians, in addition to expressing whatever views they may have about this to the authorities, should be to work with these measures, and to creatively seek other ways to care for and reach unvaccinated people with the gospel. (In offering these comments I do not mean to imply that Christians should unthinkingly comply with every government edict, but that our first response should be to work with the authorities, not against them. So, although I have significant concerns about the specifics of vaccination passports proposals and expect that they will prove unworkable in the longer term, my first response is not to reject them out of hand. )
On the basis of the considerations laid out above, as a Christian, I have chosen to be vaccinated, and to cooperate with the authorities’ efforts to control the spread of the virus. I would urge other Australian Christians to do the same, subject to the medical advice they receive from their GPs or medical specialists.
“Do Not Be Afraid”
What would Jesus do in the current crisis? One thing I am sure he would say to us is, “Take courage! I am here. Do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)
It has been much on my mind that Christians should not give in to the damaging culture of fear that has been stirred up by the pandemic. Our identity is not one of fear. Paul writes, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7); and again, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we also share in his glory” (Romans 8:15–17). Our true spiritual identity is in Christ, which provides the foundation of our confidence. This gives us hope and joy, and protects us from surrendering to fear.
Christians can take to heart the way of the cross, given to us in precious words by Jesus, which define the shape of the Christian life as one of self-denial and self-sacrifice: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). These words mark the Christian’s life as one defined by hope, resilience, love for others, and a willingness to follow Jesus without regard for self, giving no ground to fear.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.
To support Mark’s writing and teaching work with the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, visit https://markdurie.com/give/
 https://www.health.gov.au/news/health-alerts/novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov-health-alert/coronavirus-covid-19-case-numbers-and-statistics, https://www.health.gov.au/resources/current-covid-19-cases-in-hospitals-and-intensive-care-units-icus
 Much has been made of the fact that recent reports in Israel showed that 60% of hospitalisations were of people who had been previously vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. However, this misleading statistical effect reflects the fact that most Israelis have been vaccinated, and the highest vaccination rates have been among the most vulnerable. In fact, unvaccinated people are disproportionately represented in Israel’s hospitals. Consider the comparative rates for age cohorts: for Israeli adults under 50, the rate of hospitalisation is twelve times higher for the unvaccinated, and for people over 50, the rate for the unvaccinated is almost seven times higher. In Israel, vaccination has proved effective in preventing serious illness. Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/08/31/covid-israel-hospitalization-rates-simpsons-paradox/
 This is of course a sweeping generalisation. To date there have been twenty three authorized COVID-19 vaccines, including Pfizer, Vaxzevria, Sinopharm, Sputnik, and Moderna, each with its own characteristics. I note also that social media reports dispute the claim that vaccine side effects are rare.