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A Lent like we have never seen before

Posted on March 17, 2020 in: Articles

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Looks like I have given up bars and restaurants for Lent.

Hmm. Pretty radical, huh? I think so. I have never tried this before.

At the moment I am giving myself a big gold star for this bold -- some would say audacious -- expression of personal piety. It's a huge sacrifice, especially coming on the heels of the NCAA journey's cancellation, which has served as a Lenten retreat for me for many years.

(When I got up Monday morning, just out of habit I went looking for a bracket to fill out.)

Fortunately, as an Illinois resident, I am getting quite a bit of social support in my quest for Lenten deprivation. If I should falter, the emergency powers of the governor are there, like angels, to hold me up.

I'm confident I will persevere until precisely a minute after the rules change.

More seriously

More seriously, I'm praying for all the bartenders, wait staffs and owners affected, as well as those patrons who have no other social networks. Lord, please hold them close and help them however they need to be helped in this time of pestilence.

It has been a frustrating time because this whole very serious – some would rightfully say “life and death” – issue has become politicized.

I confess to spending some of the additional time on my hands these last few days on Facebook. There I’ve found a relative handful of people who insist that the whole hullabaloo is a left-wing conspiracy against President Trump. They have persisted even as the global infestation and death toll continues to climb.

Vatican shutdown

A Catholic, at least, should consider the threat more seriously when the Vatican – yes, the Vatican – announces that it has cancelled all Holy Week public services.

As radical as that is, it was really no surprise.

Italy, for some reason, has been hit harder than any country except China, where the coronavirus originated. As of Monday, a total of 2,158 people to have been killed by Covid-19 in Italy. And while the virus clearly has a particular vengeance for people over 60 (that’s me), in Italy the oldest victim was 95 and the youngest 39.

The list of fatalities includes doctors and priests.

As I write this, Italy has pretty much shut down – as it has had to do. Lacking a cure or even an effective treatment, all that any of us are left with is the strategy to limit the contagion’s chances to move from one person to the next. That has two potential benefits:

  • It slows the spread of the virus, which reduces peak demand on the limits of health care systems. (In Italy, doctors have had to let people die for lack of respirators that might well have saved them.)
  • By slowing the spread, it may also reduce the absolute number who are exposed -- and thereby limit the number who die.

We’re calling this strategy “social distancing.”

And already we’re seeing its social impact. Churches around the world are closed. Bishops are handing out dispensations by the wagonload. Schools are closed. And parents are being urged not to treat this as a vacation – complete with playdays, field trips and visits to attractions. The point is to stay home and avoid human contact beyond the home.

Public places are assisting with this effort by closing. There aren’t many places in the U.S. to take the kids anymore, unless you decide to venture out to the drive-up window at a local fast food joint, place your order, then take it home and eat it. Under the circumstances, we are calling that an adventure.

We can only hope and pray that the strategy’s public health impact is as significant as its social impact.

A complicating factor

What complicates the strategy is that apparently people who show no symptoms – especially children -- can be carriers. So avoiding sick people, long a key part of preventive strategies, may be akin to the Titanic avoiding the part of an iceberg it could see. We are advised to avoid all people except those in our own homes.

You know the drill by now. Stay at home as much as possible. When you have to be out, stay at least 6 feet from others. Wash your hands often and thoroughly. Use hand sanitizer and sanitizer sheets to clean yourself and any of the surfaces you touch. Okay, wash your hands again. Avoid touching your face – especially your mouth, nose and eyes. (It’s more of a challenge than you think.)

An irony

One possibly cruel irony of the U.S. effort to achieve radical social distancing is that if it works, those who are skeptical of Covid-19’s danger will consider themselves vindicated. They will fill the posts of Facebook with boasts like: “See, I told you it was nothing, just a huge political ploy perpetrated on us by liberals and the media.”

It has not helped that until just a few days ago, President Trump was leading that charge -- insisting that the coronavirus scare was a hoax despite the best advice of his own medical advisors … and the growing death toll across the globe.

We hear reports that in the first stages of the pandemic he may have been motivated by a concern to not rattle record-high markets, a linchpin of his re-election strategy. If that was the case, we all know how that turned out. The markets were more attentive to the reality than to the strategy, and so they have taken several nearly unprecedented nosedives in just the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, that blasé attitude cost us critical time on the healthcare side. We have to hope and pray now that it did not cost us loads of lives.

One hopes we can at least draw some leadership lessons from it. There are more, but here are a few to get us started:

  • The Boy Scouts don’t’ always get it right, but they got it right with their motto: “Be Prepared.” The U.S. wasn’t as prepared as it would have been if in May 2018 then-National Security Advisor John Bolton, in a cost-cutting measure, had not disbanded the global health security team on the National Security Council.
  • Good government leadership is not just about reducing spending and cutting taxes. Modern nations operating in a complex, highly interdependent global context need governing – and governing requires a vast array of resources that are obtained by the revenue from taxes. Yes, fat should be trimmed. But good leaders need to clearly distinguish fat from muscle and bone.
  • Expertise matters – and it costs. Americans today tend to be skeptical of experts, preferring to trust their own lived experience more than the accumulated wisdom of centuries and the ever more specialized expertise that results from our growing body of knowledge. Yes, we should trust our lived and hard-earned experience. But we should also remember that it is a very small sample and there is always more to learn than any one of us can know. We need to value expertise and invest in more of it.
  • Simple broad polarities nearly always betray us. Creative, effective leadership strategies are usually not found at either pole, but in the space between them – which expands as knowledge and experience increase. Look closer. Ask questions. Listen better. Think harder. Engage the most competent, mature people you can find.
  • Decide early on that you don’t care who gets credit for any success that can be obtained. It’s amazing the things we can accomplish when we work together without regard for who gets the credit.

Not over yet

As I write this on a Tuesday morning, there have been 186,975 cases and 7,477 deaths reported globally. (While I have been writing, the number of confirmed cases has increased by 1,488 and the number of deaths by 145.) In the U.S., cases now total 4,743 and deaths 93. But we are not over this yet.

No responsible medical expert is able to make a confident prediction about what’s going to happen in the U.S. other than to say there will be more cases and more deaths. That’s because they are confronted with two significant variables:

  • Covid-19 is a new form of coronavirus (there are many) about which we still have much to learn; and,
  • we have no idea how thorough and consistent our “social distancing” will actually be.

My children have been nothing short of solicitous in trying to care for us and getting us to take care of ourselves. They have urged us not to go out, period – not even grocery shopping. In fact, the one who lives closest to us and her husband are going to the grocery store for us.

I’m grateful for the concern and care they are showing us even as I joke that Jane and I have been grounded by our kids for missing curfew these past 50-plus years.

It’s truly odd, and more than a little uncomfortable, to be singled out as part of a “vulnerable population.” (Okay, being one of about 70 million Americans over 60 is not exactly being “singled out.” But if you are over 60, I’m betting you know exactly what I mean.)

Not a perfect world

Despite my children’s and my governor’s best efforts, it’s not a perfect world. I was up before dawn to write this because soon we will leave for a doctor’s appointment, and that will be followed by a quick trip to the polls for the primary election. (Fortunately, we live in a rural village of 1500 and I don’t anticipate more than very minimal interaction with others.) Nevertheless, after three days of being absolutely homebound, we take a couple of small steps into the unknown.

While no one can predict the future, if I have heard the medical experts accurately, it’s more likely that this focus on social distancing will continue for a month than for just a week or two -- and it may well persist for two or three months, perhaps even more. Our social lives will consist primarily of visits to the grocery store and the pharmacy.

Meanwhile, classroom lessons, graduations, confirmations, concerts, weddings and, yes, even funerals are being thrown into turmoil.

(In Italy funerals are illegal for the moment; bodies in coffins pile up by “the scores” in cemetery churches, which are also off limits to the public. Closer to home, a priest friend here in the U.S. told me a few days ago that he’s slated to preside at a funeral this week, but the family has been told by funeral home officials that any sort of crowd at the church is prohibited. He's waiting to learn more.)

As bars, restaurants and other public places are closed, many people will find themselves out of work and soon out of money, not a few of them with no health insurance, bare cupboards and empty refrigerators. Other workers – especially but not only healthcare workers -- will be scrambling to meet mounting workloads even as some of their co-workers need time away from the job to recover.

Whatever it will be, it won’t be pretty.

What leadership looks like now

In a time like this, leadership calls on us to “think globally but act locally.”

We all need to be good servants, good stewards and good shepherds. Look around. Do what you can. Live with your limits. Ask for help when you need it. Share. Reach out to those more isolated than you. Listen. Be patient. Be compassionate. Be hopeful. Be prayerful.

And wash your hands. Often. Thoroughly. With soap and water. For at least 20 seconds. (Did you know that’s about how long it takes to say The Lord’s Prayer? Let that be your guide.)

By the way, as I write the numbers keep climbing. The world is now at 187,430 cases and 7,478 deaths. Surely it will have risen higher still by the time you read this.

Keep praying. Keep contributing as you can. We can endure. We can overcome. We can help each other through the ordeal.

If you’re asking yourself how can you be a Jesus-like leader in all this turmoil, the question you should be asking is: Who can I help today?

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