What should you do about COVID-19? Talk to your people

If you are a TIE reader, you likely share the view that there is a real chance that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause substantial deaths, and soon. It’s not a certainty, but it’s a risk that cannot be ignored. Some of these deaths can be averted through immediate and sustained preventive actions, including social distancing. I want to persuade you that you should talk to people who matter in your community about what we are facing and what we have to do.

What we are facing is the possible exponential growth in the number of cases in North America in the next few weeks. Among the fears is that the growth will exceed the capacity of the health care system to adequately care for them. There may be too many cases for the available ICU beds and ventilators, in which case many severely ill patients will die. There are some hopeful signs: in China and Korea, the number of new cases is falling. This is almost certainly true in part because these countries have implemented stringent measures to reduce the person-to-person transmission of the virus.

Unfortunately, comprehensive preventive actions aren’t happening yet in North America. On our side of the Pacific, there may never be a central authority that can or will implement the massive interventions that the Chinese and Koreans have. Or they will do it much later than they should. But every chain of transmission that is broken reduces the number of people who eventually become infected and how quickly that number accumulates. So, in the absence of leadership, action and change have to be local here. What each of us needs to do is to act locally to promote preventive social distancing where we live among the people to whom we are connected.

This came home to me in church three weeks ago. I belong to an Anglican (in the US, you’d say Episcopal) parish that celebrates holy Eucharist from a common chalice every Sunday. Before that happens, we share God’s Peace, which means we shake hands or hug everyone in reach. That Sunday, as we stood to greet each other, it was as if I was waking from a dream. “This is how it happens, right here.” I crossed my arms across my chest and mumbled something about having a cold. After the service, I corralled our priest and spoke about my concerns. He had been thinking along the same lines. But it’s a challenging issue: the Peace and the Eucharist are of immense importance to our community. This conversation led to my getting pulled into an ongoing discussion with the diocesan clergy about what we should do. (We’re changing, and the policies are evolving quickly.)

My point is that you are engaged in local institutions that need to change to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. This change may have to originate from within these institutions. And you will know someone– maybe the youth hockey coach, or the school principal – who is central to that social network. It would help if you reached out to them. This person will likely know, better than you, what questions need to be answered and what words need to be said to make change happen. And, if your experience is like mine, they will be grateful for your knowledge about the epidemic. They’re not on #epitwitter.

As it happens, I had coffee with my priest this morning. Part of what we talked about was what may happen if (when?) social distancing falls short of reducing the growth of the epidemic to levels of cases that the health care system can handle. I shared the reports that some Italian hospitals are triaging access to ventilators. Canadians live with an assurance that, in emergencies, the health care system will be there for them. No one in this culture is ready for the trauma of being told that they or a family member is at mortal risk but cannot get the necessary care.

Lots of people outside the health care system should begin to think now about how to address the consequences of this phase of the epidemic if, God forbid, we get there. So far as I can tell, this is not, to say the least, on the radar of local clergy. But they are essential psychological caregivers, if often unrecognized. If things go badly, these clergy will be deeply engaged in the care of the bereaved.

So will many others. If you get what is happening with COVID-19, and you are connected to people in your community who can make a difference, buy them a cup of coffee. And talk.

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