Two years ago this week, I offered my first reflection on COVID-19. In 2020, the first Sunday of the month was February 2nd, Groundhog Day; and I believe Andrew Langstone made a funny comment about the palindromic nature of the second day of the second month of the year 2020. However, I can’t remember exactly what was said; and since we didn’t start livestreaming services until the next month, I can’t go back and watch a tape of the service. But perhaps some of you here today, or those watching live, or those watching later will remember.
Last week, when I revisited the sermon from that Sunday, which I had titled “God help us,” I was not overly impressed. It was the third of a four-sermon series on “The Lord’s Prayer;” and while I liked the series, which I ended three weeks later on February 23, 2020, the third part from February 2 doesn’t hold up well in my opinion.
For one, I talked about a novel coronavirus instead of COVID-19 since that latter name was not coined by the World Health Organization until February 11, 2020. For another, I stated it was likely this coronavirus epidemic – which by then had hit China and South Korea — would not become a pandemic; and yet, here we are two years later with almost four hundred million cases logged, over six million people dead, and much of the world still struggling with this ever-evolving virus.
After the service two years ago, I flew to Ontario for study leave as a participant in the men’s spirituality circle at the church’s Five Oaks Centre, which is one of my favourite continuing education opportunities; but not surprisingly, the circle was cancelled in 2021 and again this year.
After spending time at Five Oaks, Kim and I flew to Puerto Vallarta for our first week of vacation of 2020; and to be frank, I didn’t think much about COVID-19 during those two weeks, nor upon my return to the office on February 17 and through the next three Sundays. Things only changed when the NBA halted its season on March 10, when the WHO declared the virus a pandemic on March 11, and when church leaders decided to close Mill Woods United Church’s facilities on March 16.
For much of the world, the pandemic will soon persist into a third year; and anger at how governments have handled it is boiling over. The most prominent sign of this anger in Canada is the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” which has occupied the centre of Ottawa for the past week, and which has led to smaller demonstrations here and across the country.
Like the convoy blockaders, I have felt frustrated and angry during most of the pandemic. I am also struck by how the government’s response to the protests mirrors its handling of the pandemic. Instead of treating these illegal and disruptive protests as an emergency, the authorities have taken a low key approach.
In the spring of 2020, country after country in East Asia and Oceania showed that the pandemic could be brought under control in two months or less. But here in the Americas, Europe, and many other places, 23 months of ever-changing restrictions, vaccination campaigns, and other public health measures have still not ended it.
In Canada, there was initial discussion of using the federal Emergency Measures Act to deal with the pandemic. But this didn’t happen, and so there has been no Canada-wide response to the disease. I am sorry about this reality; but one of its small advantages is how it allows us to compare different provincial jurisdictions.
During the first wave of infection, which was March through June of 2020, Alberta had one of the lowest levels of infection and death in the country. But since the second wave of the disease, Alberta has had more deaths per capita than any other province despite having the youngest population in the country. It has also had the most cases per capita and the lowest levels of vaccination.
Canada has struggled for almost two years, although our level of death is lower than some countries. About 900 people per million have died in Canada while Brazil has experienced nearly 3,000 deaths per million, the United States 2,600 deaths per million, and Russia 2,300 deaths per million. But Canadian figures are high when compared to places like Vietnam with 380 deaths per million, South Korea with 130 deaths per million, Taiwan with 36 deaths per million, New Zealand with 11 deaths per million, and China with just 3 deaths per million, although almost everyone disputes the Chinese figures.
I wish Canada and other Western countries had noticed in spring 2020 that two months of strict lockdowns can bring pandemic figures close to zero; and that strict border controls except with other COVID-free regions can keep things that way. Instead, Canada experienced various mock-downs, which usually neglected homeless people, migrant labourers, and so-called essential work in places like meatpacking plants and oil sands camps.
The advent of vaccines in late 2020 made getting to zero easier. While vaccination of everyone would have been ideal, the tiny minority of Canadians who refused vaccination, in my opinion, should not have been allowed to gather in workplaces, schools, houses of worship, or stores until the pandemic ended. The vaccines don’t work perfectly in stopping transmission, particularly with the Omicron variant, but they decrease infection and severe health outcomes.
The “Freedom Convoy” wants an end to all public health restrictions, although they have not militated against other restrictions like stop signs, driving on the right side of the road, or being dressed in public.
I strongly disagree with the convoy participants even as I empathize with their anger at public health and governmental leaders who have not been able to think clearly enough about the pandemic to bring it under control.
Canada needs public health measures to deal with the pandemic; but implementing poorly thought-out measures for two years is untenable, I believe.
I hope the Omicron wave is the final one and that measures to lift COVID-19 restrictions, which seem to be coming, will not lead to a sixth wave, although who knows? What I do know is that the inability of our governments to learn best practices from East Asia has increased social instability.
On the other hand, people might reject trying to control the pandemic when much more difficult problems like population growth and climate change are not being tackled. Given the intractability of these problems, why not support a “Mad Max” world in which racist, sexist, and anti-democratic ideas run wild through a despairing population?
Some countries in East Asia have leaders that seem to still have faith in the future of humanity, and so they have controlled the pandemic. Other leaders in countries like Canada seem to be aware they are failing the future and so have found themselves taking half-hearted action. And other leaders in fascist nations like Brazil and Russia and among the Canadian convoy protestors, seem to have gone full Mad Max.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus makes a statement about a passage from Isaiah that proclaims liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison. Jesus says this passage has come true to the people who heard him read it. Today’s second reading from Rev. Steven Garnaas-Holmes shows that Jesus made a choice. He ends his reading with the year of God’s favor and does not continue to the next line from the 61st chapter of Isaiah which mentions the year of God’s vengeance.
I like this observation. Jesus chooses liberty and not judgement or vengeance.
I judge both the convoy backers and government leaders to be wrong. But all I can honestly say is that I am feeling frustrated and angry – at the pandemic, at many of the decisions made by governments, and by protestors who think truckers should be free to cross borders without being vaccinated.
Still, I am often wrong in the ideas my emotions focus on; and even though I perceived a route out of the pandemic in the summer of 2020 — by following the lead of South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and New Zealand — I believe these routes may no longer be available. So, I hope the pandemic fades into the background on its own and allows us to get on with our lives.
Over the past two years, I have focused a lot on the pandemic because it has been a prominent feature of life and because it looked like a social problem that our governments could solve. Unfortunately, most have not yet come up with a successful solution, and so I might find myself becoming more cynical.
However, I choose to try and avoid this cynicism. We can stand against what I see as governmental neurosis in the face of COVID, against illegal and disingenuous protests for “freedom” by convoy participants, and for measures that could end population explosion and climate disaster even when we imagine there is not much chance such stances will make a difference in the world.
Regardless of so-called “success” or “failure” on such issues, we are partisans of love, followers of Jesus, and people who try to stay sane amid social turmoil. We proclaim the year of God’s favour for the poor, the blind, and the imprisoned – not because we are sure the actions we support will happen soon or perhaps ever, but because what we proclaim is in alignment with sacred values that are internationalist, egalitarian, and democratic.
As partisans of freedom, we can distance ourselves from both the convoy radicals and from neurotic and short-sighted governments and so help ourselves to communicate with balance.
May such practices help us stay awake to Love despite all the noise that often surrounds us.