I grew up hearing stories of the Second World War, especially from people who had faced the onslaught of the German bombing campaign. Those who lived through The Blitz in London would tell about the terrifying sound of the air raid sirens warning that bombers were on the way. They would tell also of the joy and relief of hearing the all-clear signal when the final plane had turned back and the final bomb had fallen. Following that all-clear, the people would emerge from tube stations, basements, and Anderson shelters, knowing that for now they were safe and that for now they could get back to their lives.
Today we are in the midst of a very different kind of conflict. We are not involved in a war that involves bombs and bombers, but are instead battling an unseen and unseeable virus. In just the past two or three weeks we have witnessed a worldwide tectonic shift in social customs. “Social distancing” has become the new normal and the highest virtue. Gatherings and crowds of any kind are not only forbidden by law, but also in direct contravention of the new social mores. Conferences are canceled, airlines are grounded, malls are shuttered, and grocery stores are metering people in.
We don’t know how long this situation will last, but can be confident that it won’t last forever. Eventually the virus will wane and life will return to some semblance of normalcy. What I have been pondering over the past few days is when and how it returns to normal, and how this “new normal” will differ from the “old normal.”
So how do these lockdowns end, and under what circumstances do we once again confidently emerge into society, gather in crowds, and reduce all this social distancing? I suppose it’s possible that we may soon see the quick discovery of a simple cure. It’s possible we may learn, as some have been suggesting, that the experts have radically misunderstood COVID-19 and made it out to be far more serious than it really is. Or maybe one day the virus will just disappear. Under any of those scenarios, we may soon receive a kind of society-wide “all-clear” signal telling us that the threat is over and we can immediately go back to life as we’ve always known it.
But that seems improbable. What seems more likely is that there will be a period of weeks or months in which the threat slowly declines and we together navigate and negotiate “ramping up” into that new normal. I have been considering some of the unanswered questions related to my own life during that ramp-up period. Your questions may be different from mine since your life is different from mine, but I expect there will be at least some overlap.
Some of those questions relate to family life.
My daughter was offered a temporary leave from her job at a grocery store until they can ensure their employees have the necessary protective equipment and training. My son works at the same store and is due to come off school leave in a few weeks. Under what circumstances will they be comfortable returning to work? What safety measures will they need to see enacted before they can do their jobs in safety and with confidence?
While I don’t foresee schools opening again this school year, what if they do? Unless the government can convince parents that either they erred in canceling schools in the first place or that the circumstances that necessitated it have been resolved, how many teachers and students will return even if the doors do open? What will have needed to change after the summer to begin a new school year?
In August, two of my three children are set to attend college in the United States. Will we be comfortable having our children out of the country, knowing how quickly the schools were ordered closed in this last outbreak and knowing that the borders between our countries can now swiftly shut? Will we be able to get them out-of-country health insurance that covers this virus?
For the next outbreak of COVID-19 or another virus, will governments move even faster so will we have even less time to prepare ourselves, to get ourselves and our children home, and to get ready to hunker down?
And then there are questions related to church.
Is it possible that we will soon be told we can meet in crowds again, but only if sufficient safety measures are put in place? If so, what are those measures? How many people will want to gather for corporate worship if that involves hand-washing, safe distancing, face masks, and so on? Do churches have the right to demand that people adhere to such measures, or can we only suggest it?
Once churches are free to gather again, how long will it be before every member is comfortable returning? Are we really a church if the elderly folk still need to stay away, and will they be forgotten once the rest of us can return to normalcy? Do we continue to stream services in that period? Once the doors open, how much should church leaders pressure people to return to services and how much should leaders encourage them to heed their own wisdom and conscience, even if it means staying away for months longer? What if one pastor is comfortable returning and the others are not? What if the majority of congregants are eager to commence corporate worship but the pastor is not?
When we begin to gather, how do we account for the fact that some people will likely be glad to shake hands and hug while others will still want to maintain distancing? Will we be tempted to look down on people who do or do not wear masks?
Will we continue to celebrate the Lord’s Supper by passing a plate of little pieces of bread and a tray of little cups of juice that are touched and breathed on by many people? What if we maintain this method but find that some are afraid to take it or are advised not to for reasons of health or immunity? Will Lord’s Supper have to be done in a sterile way?
An important component of my job is travel, sometimes to carry out research and sometimes to speak at conferences.
How long will it take before the airlines are functioning again? How long will it take before they are fully functioning again? A month ago I could catch a night flight from Toronto and be at almost any major airport in the world by the next day. Today it’s inadvisable to leave Canada and impossible to enter almost any other country.
Now that we know nations deem it effective to recall their citizens and close their borders during outbreaks, will we have the confidence to travel to other countries, knowing we may be forced to make a quick exit at our own expense or even face getting stuck there? Will the airlines and governments continue to help their citizens with repatriation, or next time will we find ourselves on our own? (See, for example, these stories from American citizens in India.)
What will change in airports? Just as stringent security protocols followed 9/11, will stringent health protocols follow COVID-19? Will we be comfortable traveling far from home knowing that temperature checks may soon be as common as security checks and that we may not be able to board a plane if we come down with as much as a sniffle or a low-grade fever? Will travel health insurance even cover us if we contract the virus in foreign places? (Canada just passed a ruling that you cannot board a plane if you show any symptoms of COVID-19; you will either need to wait until 14 days have passed or provide a medical certificate proving you do not have it.)
Airlines make their money by packing people as closely together as possible. Will we be comfortable sitting elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-back, with 400 people packed tightly into a small aluminum tube and sharing a few scuzzy bathrooms? Will we be comfortable eating in such confined quarters? Will every cough in the high-elevation dry air provoke scowls or panic among fellow travelers?
And how about conferences?
How long will it be before we are ready to gather in big crowds to hear preaching together, not to mention to enjoy singing together? (If ever there was an activity that produces and transmits a massive mist of “droplets,” surely it is the corporate singing of large crowds!)
If we learn that crowds have been the source of local outbreaks (as, indeed, may have been the case in Milan), will organizations be assuming significant moral or legal liability if their event turns out to be the ground zero of a new outbreak?
Will ministries even be willing to assume the risk of planning huge conferences? These events accrue massive up-front expenses that are paid for by advance ticket sales. But, as we’ve seen, a pandemic can shut down the conference and require tickets to be refunded. This has left some ministries facing possible bankruptcy.
Those are just some of the questions I’ve got. Am I being alarmist? I kind of hope so. But the way I figure it, if the virus is really so bad that it requires the near-complete shutdown of society, it seems very unlikely that we’ll return to normal quickly and easily. It’s far more probable, I think, that we will have to move slowly and thoughtfully, asking good questions all the while. It’s probable that the world will never quite be the same.