Q: Archbishop J, what is the REAL challenge of COVID-19?
Is physical health and death the real challenge? Is it the high rate of infection? Is the rising unemployment the real challenge facing us? Or, are the rising pockets of poverty the real challenge? Is the social catastrophe that threatens us the real challenge?
Each of these is a significant challenge facing us. Each is a major disaster that we want to avoid. And yet, these may be signs of the times, calling us to dig deeper to the foundations to find the real challenge.
Balance of Health and Society
We can ‘lock down’ society and expand the hospitals. We can wear masks and other PPE (personal protective equipment) and practise much better hygiene and physical distancing that would slow the rate.
Or, we could isolate the most vulnerable people, which would mean the vast majority of cases would not need to be hospitalised, so slowing down the number of beds needed, in particular the ones in ICU. Finding the right balance is of the utmost importance.
If my hand has a disease; it needs to be treated. But the treatment must not be more injurious to my body than the disease itself.
We are at the point where we must balance competing risks—the risk of contagion vs the risk of social unrest.
Viewed in this way, the real challenge might be: How do we strike the fine balance between the threat of COVID-19 and the threat of social breakdown? No society has found the right balance yet.
For example, Sweden quickly identified that the risk of social fallout is greater than the medical challenge. From an economic standpoint so far, this has been somewhat successful. When we look at the death rate however, the numbers are very different. Sweden at the time of writing has 18,640 cases and 2194 deaths. Norway with half the population has 7527 cases and 201 deaths. Denmark has 8698 cases and 422 deaths. The death rate in Sweden seems disproportional to neighbours half its size.
On the other hand, there is China, which effected a broad lockdown that has slowed the rate of infection but imposed significant economic damage. The debate in the USA, and in Western Europe has now predictably shifted to mitigating the social and economic costs of the outbreak.
In all this a secondary challenge has arisen—how do we keep the fundamentals of democracy intact? Privacy is being rolled back as invasive contact tracing becomes the norm.
No fewer than 84 countries have enacted emergency laws vesting extra powers in governments saying that COVID-19 is an emergency like no other and more tools are needed for the executive to respond. In most cases, these changes—if left unchecked—will be caustic to democracy.
Until there is a vaccine, we will be living with COVID-19. This means making very difficult choices between fighting the virus (lockdown) and keeping the patient alive (opening up to societal activity).
In the Caribbean, we are becoming keenly aware of the social challenge of the virus. Many breadwinners live week to week, and they have run out of cash. They cannot buy food and cannot support their families.
Our immediate response is to ensure we move food to the neediest. We must do this as a first response. But we need to do this without robbing people of dignity as we wait for things to restart.
Yet when we open up the economy again many businesses may not open and permanent job loss might be significant. And there may be a spike in new COVID-19 cases, forcing us to close again. This will cause even more businesses to fail and drive further social challenge.
In this conundrum there is opportunity: how do we define a new Caribbean civilisation where people are treated with dignity? This cannot be done without a heart for the Kingdom of God and imagination.
Building resilient regenerative communities
Our Caribbean civilisation has been resilient in the face of a very brutal social history. We have created informal networks that ensure we mitigate against the worst of the challenges we face.
A UWI researcher told me that when it comes to community management of diabetes, high blood pressure, etc, in the Caribbean we can find the people in the communities relatively quickly. In the First World, it is like looking for a needle in a proverbial haystack. This gives us a real advantage.
In dealing with the social challenges, our Government has enlisted the aid of the Churches. This signals a major change in the way we do things.
What if we use this opportunity to build resilient communities? While we give food, what if we give dignity and ask people to tell their story and engage them in alternatives by which they can contribute to their community during this time?
What if we were to find out what skills people have and how they could organise themselves and their communities for informal contact tracing? What if we facilitate those who have skills and are now unemployed to become part of the solution by engaging them in the rebuilding of their community? What if the food centres were places where people could barter their product with others?
What if we used our contact with those in social need to educate them and their communities to detect the virus and report it early? What if we facilitated people to begin growing food in every space available in the community and to use their trade for other community needs? What if we could do these things with proper social distancing, proper hygiene and minimising physical contact all in place?
What if we found the way, through this great challenge, to transform our communities from a dependency mentality, to a resilient mentality engaging the whole of society in finding the best solutions to the enormous challenges facing us? Now this is our greatest challenge—imagining a new Heaven and a new Earth—a new way of being Caribbean civilisation.
The greatest challenge is not the health challenge or the societal challenge, it is the challenge of imagining a new way of being Caribbean civilisation.
Engage people in your community on the best knowledge about early detection of the virus. And, about becoming self-sufficient through agriculture and other productive ways.