Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: COVID-19 and change

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: COVID-19 and change
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

Back in March 2020, we talked about “two weeks, perhaps a month to flatten the curve” and a V-shaped recovery. These two weeks were to be a brief absence from the office, the church, the restaurant and shaking hands. Almost a year later, the pandemic has changed us in ways that we are yet to realize.

An expectation of returning to the normality of 2019 has receded. We are in for a season of mixed economy. Masks and physical distancing will probably continue for many months while restaurants and places of worship slowly open. In addition, there is an increasing consensus emerging that COVID-19 will continue to be around, mutating and changing, to become a more fatal strain of the seasonal flu that will need an annual vaccination.

Looking beyond this transition season, there are some changes we can anticipate. In the work realm, there will be greater flexibility. Although remote working can inflict a heavy toll – like loneliness, weight gain and lack of human interaction – there are also advantages: The long commute can be avoided and presence for spouses and loved ones is made easier. Some companies will probably go to completely remote work, while others will be more open to some hybrid combination.

In respect to housing, the delights of downtown urban living look less attractive when you need a yard for outdoor entertaining. So, after decades of suburbia losing out to trendy Old Town, we are seeing single family detached homes enjoying a surge in value.

Takeout and delivery are becoming more popular than dining at a restaurant, and the convenience and ease of DoorDash and Grubhub will remain attractive. Religious congregations learned how to use technology during this pandemic, and the better ones will come out of this season stronger by creating hybrid congregations partly online and partly in person.

There are deeper changes at work in this moment. The practice of shaking hands might well dissipate forever. We have known for decades that the exchanging of the peace in church is much more dangerous to your health than drinking alcoholic wine out of a shared silver cup.

Overseas travel will take time to come back as Americans remind themselves afresh that there is almost every geographical experience you can imagine here in America, which is only a car ride – although sometimes a long one – away. One more permanent change involves the elderly and those with underlying health conditions: Due to COVID-19’s higher fatality rate, they will always have to be careful about going into crowded venues.

But there are even deeper changes happening. Those of us living through this moment will never again take a restaurant meal with friends or a concert for granted. The thought “do you remember the great pandemic of 2020-2021?” will be forever on our minds.

We will live life with a heightened sense of its fragility and, hopefully, with a heightened sense of gratitude. We know how hard it can be to function when the simple pleasures of life – visiting an elderly parent, enjoying a sporting event – are denied. So, we will find ourselves wanting to give thanks for the very simplicity of gathering, being together, enjoying company and not viewing each other as a potential carrier of a life-threatening plague.

We are in for a season of painful adjustment. There will be winners and losers. For certain industries, this will be a moment of dramatic upheaval and change, which will come at some social cost.

Imaginative adaptation will be rewarded. And those institutions and organizations already anticipating this new world will be able to seize the moment and come out of this pandemic even stronger than they were before.

The writer is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.