Easter around the world is over; Songkran is upon us here in South East Asia, with Ramadan soon to come. Everywhere, the cry is heard, “That was different!”
Easter, the day churches are traditionally full, was celebrated with empty churches for the first time in memory. Songkran normally fills the streets with revelers happily (or at least wantonly) engaged in water warfare interspersed with visits to elders to bless and be blessed. This year the roadways and streets are lacking crowds. Hotels are empty. Businesses are shuttered. It’s a holiday without the good times. Ramadan will take on equally unusual form as the fasting and feasting are redesigned, mosques are empty, and Mecca is as forlorn as St. Peter’s Square was last Sunday (see the picture above).
By and large, pastors did their best, reminding absent congregations via the Internet of the core symbols: the empty tomb and echoing Hallelujahs. Parishioners appreciated their pastors’ attempts but missed great parts of Easter as they loved it, stalwartly trying to cherish at least some small parts of the new way to Zoom in on Easter. For many the conclusion is “That was not better.” The wait is on to return to normal.
Is normal right around the corner?
US President Trump called for full churches on Easter, but that was before social networks began to show drone clips of mass graves being dug and used in New York, and the US death count passed all other countries. Prime Minister Prayute here in Thailand has extended emergency measures beyond April 16 to the end of the month with the real possibility of close-down going on through May. Even though there are hopeful signs that the epidemic has been turned around in places it hit hardest, it’s clear we’re just entering what I’ll call PHASE TWO.
During Phase One we were required to learn new behaviors symbolized by face masks and social distancing, but also home schooling and frugality. We saw what an epidemic can do, how it spreads, and how it is battled. We grew tense, afraid of things like door knobs and invisible particles in the air. We waited to hear “who’s next.”
Then things began to get better. Air quality was one thing that improved, but so did the news about the disease.
Phase Two, we need to be aware, will be worse than Phase One in several respects. Sequestering, closed borders and businesses, isolation, and suspended plans take their toll. Suicides have begun, protests against the restrictions are gaining the inflamed rhetoric needed to become vigorous, and the disease itself will arise again where it was thought to be spent as it has in parts of China and Korea. A second shut-down order will be harder to enact. In some countries enforcement may need to take on military assistance. If a third shut-down were to loom, hardly any political authority will dare to propose it. The cost of imposing it would be considered greater than the cost of letting the disease run its course.
During Phase Two, the disease will finally begin to ravage populations where massed-living is unavoidable, great slums in particular. Then healthcare systems really will be overwhelmed. People living far from cities will succumb because of their distance from substantial healthcare institutions.
For us who are reading this essay, Phase Two is close at hand. Its first sign will be a collective yell of relief as the infection curve begins to dip and we dare to think we will probably make it through this. Our hand washing will go down from 20 seconds to 15, we will dare to use our masks repeatedly, and we will reconsider travel. Self-imposed restrictions will slip as we relax.
We do not want to hear that this disease will be lethal among us for at least six more months. But part of the dynamic of Phase Two is not only our own battle fatigue, it’s also bound to be tied to the invigorating idea that something is already working. Certain diet plans, exercise regimes, and cutting-edge medicines will gain traction. Pharmaceutical tests will be top news in Phase Two. We will become confident that a medicine is proving itself increasingly effective. We could relax too soon.
If Phase Two goes long enough a vaccine will be on the horizon. When that gets going, it marks the start of Phase Three. COVID-19 will be around for a long time. It’s more devious and lingering than most viruses, but it will eventually become manageable.
However, we will personally benefit from that conquest of the pandemic, only if we collectively navigate through Phase Two successfully without growing weary of doing well.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.