Media coverage of the pandemic, with a few notable exceptions, has been deplorable. Every day we are inundated 24/7 with ‘worst case scenarios’ and every death is presented to us in sombre tones. It serves to paint a dystopian nightmare striking fear into the hearts of many vulnerable people. It has to stop. The situation is very serious but there are plenty of reasons for optimism too.
Covid 19 is not ‘just another flu’. Even if the death rate turns out to be similar, which is looking likely at around 1%, it is more serious because it has the potential to overwhelm the health service given the speed with which it is killing off the frail and vulnerable. There is no disputing then that we are facing a serious crisis which needs to be handled with expertise; we do well to listen to government advice and comply. But to suggest the grim reaper is running amok causing an existential crisis is simply not true. After all more people are surviving than dying.
How might we feel, I wonder, if the media told us about each case of survival instead of death? Or if they balanced stories so we could see both the tragic losses and the positive recoveries. I am sure people would feel more optimistic than at present.
And what if we knew more about cases presented? I am not suggesting this virus cannot prove fatal for the fit and healthy, normal flu also claims surprising victims. But bias is most often found in what is not being said. Was the young person who died compromised by addiction? Did they have another illness or a heart defect? Were they heavy smokers/vapers? We don’t have the medical notes so none can know. But it might be that full facts change pictures entirely.
And what of stories that are simply untrue? It turns out a 21yr old woman who died this week, and was paraded as a warning to young people, may not have died of the virus after all! She suffered a heart attack and was never tested. How much fear did that story spread despite being spurious at best and factually inaccurate at worst?
And understand that projected deaths include a significant overlap with the number who would die this coming year in any case. Many victims are old and suffering with other serious conditions. The average age of death in Italy, for example, is in the 80’s… this is not to undermine the tragedy of these deaths. Every loss is painful and every life is precious. But once you get to a certain age then death is always close. We all die eventually. Being honest about this can help bring much needed perspective.
Every day, in any given year, 1400 people die in the UK. If we honed in on each one, fearing we might be in that number, normal life would falter. This virus is undeniably horrible. It is hastening the deaths of the dying and claiming some unfortunate healthy people too. We are absolutely right as a nation to take the threat seriously and do everything in our power to slow the curve. But let us not lose our heads and be driven to panic by a frenzied media. My advice is limit yourself to a quick catch up each day, question the date without being cynical, then turn it off and do other things.
I am no medical expert. So treat health projections I make with a pinch of salt. But I am a priest who helps people prepare for death as a matter of routine. And, truthfully, the death of the elderly is neither abnormal nor reason for fear. We all die eventually. What is important is live the life we have, short or long, in virtue, hope and faith.
Despite authentic concerns at present we are not staring down the barrel at the end of the world. This crisis will pass and normality will resume for the majority. Perhaps the lesson the world must learn from Covid 19 is how to better deal with our frailty and mortality?
We must leave behind the vacuous message of hedonistic secular modernity, that has nothing to say about the meaning of life, and return to our Christian heritage; hearing afresh the Easter message that death is not to be feared if life is lived aright in relationship with God. Fix eyes on heaven and the troubles of this world are halved. Which is why, if faced with imminent death, despite some natural earthly fears for my nearest and dearest, I would not despair. If God calls me home so be it. I go with hope trusting in the promise of baptism. For Christians death is not the end nor the worst thing that can happen to us.
The world seems to have forgotten this at present. This is also true of a significant number of bishops. Our prelates must understand that the Gospel is not advanced if the church only speaks as a branch of the humanitarian health service and not as the body of Christ. We already have government officials to tell us to be kind and wash hands and attend to the needs of the body. What the bishops should be doing is calling the church to prayer and repentance that might return to God and souls might be saved.