Texts: “Pandemic as portal” by Arundhati Roy * Luke 4:14-19 (Jesus proclaims Jubilee)
Today I begin with three of the most challenging questions I can imagine. Could the world rid itself of nuclear weapons? Is there a way to find new homes for the worlds 70 million+ refugees? And can racism be eradicated?
Ever since I was a teenager, I have asked such questions. And much to my dismay, the answer always seems to be “no.” While no one wants these social ills to persist, no plausible plan to solve them has appeared.
So, we are forced to live under the shadow of nuclear annihilation; to ache for refugees who live in wretched camps; and to watch in despair as Indigenous, Black, and Brown people continue to live in fear of police violence.
So, how is that for the beginning of a Sunday reflection? Kind of a downer, eh?
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus proclaims the Year of God’s Favour. This is the ancient Hebrew idea of Jubilee. It was first upheld as a sacred mandate in the book of Leviticus and it is supposed to occur every 50 years. In a Jubilee year, prisoners are freed, those with debts are forgiven, and the poor are lifted out of poverty.
But 3,000 years after Leviticus and 2,000 years after the gospels, a Jubilee year has never arrived. The passage by Arundhati Roy that Elfrieda read expresses the hope that after today’s pandemic, the world might be rebuilt to finally reflect the hopes expressed by Jesus so long ago. But before we can create a post-pandemic society of justice and freedom, we have to first stop the pandemic.
So, today I gingerly approach the big questions with which I began by asking a smaller but related question: can we eliminate COVID-19 and lift the extraordinary restrictions we have been observing for the past three months?
To my delight, a few countries have now achieved this goal. Both Vietnam and Taiwan have recorded no new cases this month and between them have only 16 active cases remaining. And on Monday, New Zealand announced that the last person of the 1500 who had contracted COVID-19 there had recovered. On the same day, New Zealand’s government lifted all restrictions among its 5 million residents other than strict border controls.
Perhaps you saw the scenes yesterday of 20,000 screaming rugby fans in an arena in Dunedin who enjoyed the first public sporting event in New Zealand since March. Today, 35,000 fans packed an arena in Auckland. Worship services in New Zealand took place today with no restrictions. Choirs sang, congregations raised their voices in thanksgiving; and friends hugged one another without fear.
But New Zealand is an isolated group of islands; so, we can’t replicate its victory over COVID-19 here, can we?
Well, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I don’t see why not. Yes, eliminating the virus is a terribly challenging task, but it is also a straightforward one. To eliminate the virus, a country has to test everyone with symptoms; quickly trace all the people with whom those who test positive have recently been in contact; quarantine and test all these contacts; and isolate and support those who are sick. Test, trace, isolate, and repeat. Test, trace, and isolate, over and over again. If this is done properly, the virus will be eliminated. A preliminary step of quarantine may also be necessary if the virus has become widespread before a regime of test, trace, and isolate is in place.
It also helps if none of a country’s residents live or work in unhealthy places like slums, poorly-run long-term care homes, or prisons.
Canada and New Zealand implemented emergency measures to tackle COVID-19 in March, and in both countries they have worked. The numbers of deaths, new cases, and active cases in Canada have all been dropping of late, which is good news.
But unlike New Zealand, Canada has not yet eliminated the virus. Three months in, there are still more than 30,000 Canadians who are sick. And so, Canadians have begun a fourth month of distancing restrictions, and we fear many more months of infection and death.
New Zealand eliminated the virus in three months when Canada did not for several reasons. To start, New Zealand adopted a goal of elimination instead of containment. Second, its quarantine period was more effective than Canada’s. New Zealand housed almost all of its homeless people. It closed more types of workplaces, including meatpacking plants and construction sites. It supervised returning residents during the 14-day quarantine period instead of relying on the honour system. And finally, it used the quarantine period to develop an effective regime of testing, tracing, and supported isolation. This regime will remain in place to catch new cases that will appear as travel restrictions are loosened in the months ahead.
In Canada, I pray that the number of cases and deaths will continue to trend downward even as restrictions are lifted. But I find it easy to be pessimistic because testing, tracing, and isolation are still inadequate in places like Ontario and Quebec. Despite three months and hundreds of billions of dollars spent to fight the pandemic, some jurisdictions have not yet recruited enough staff and resources to test, trace, and isolate the sick.
I finish with an example that illustrates the challenge. For the past two weeks, Ontario has reported hundreds of new COVID-19 infections among the 8,000 migrant workers whom farmers recruit each spring. These infections were not imported. They result from the terrible conditions endured by temporary migrants from Mexico and the Caribbean.
Oppressive conditions for migrant farm workers have been an open secret in Ontario for the past fifty years. But in a pandemic year, I had hoped the provincial government would act quickly upon learning of these COVID-19 outbreaks. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Ontario has not bulldozed the dormitories that house these workers; it has not hired hundreds of construction workers to build improved ones; and it has not demanded that farm companies improve wages, benefits, and working conditions. This inaction shows both that the Ontario government does not care about migrant workers and that it has not yet found the will, passion, and competence to eliminate the COVID-19 pandemic.
Properly housing migrant farm workers is expensive. But it is not only the ethical thing to do. It is essential to the recovery of Canada’s public health and its economy.
In a similar way, housing homeless people, supporting long-term care facilities, and improving conditions for meatpacking employees are difficult and expensive tasks. But during a pandemic it is far more costly to neglect them.
I pray that Canada’s governments will yet find the spirit and will to use some of the hundreds of billions of dollars of its pandemic subsidies to fix the social ills that have prevented Canada from following New Zealand’s lead in eliminating the virus.
If Canada’s governments do follow New Zealand’s lead – that is, if they begin to test smartly, trace quickly, and effectively support all those who need isolation; and if they heal some of the social wounds that have been exposed by the pandemic — not only will this help eliminate the virus. It will also create hope that Jubilee goals of freedom and compassion could also be achieved.
When a government lacks willpower and spirit, a pandemic can cripple its people for years. But when a Spirit of Jubilee informs our communities, we can not only dream of a world free of COVID-19, but even of one without weapons of mass destruction, without refugees, and without racism.
May we work with others to finally make Jubilee our post-pandemic reality.