As the COVID lockdown continues in Melbourne, an understandable level of anxiety appears to have been rising. People without work for weeks or months on end, and businesses under threat, are just some of the many effects of the protracted measures testing everyone’s patience. So, what are we to make of vaccine passports as the possible ticket to the desperately-sought return to relative freedom, and something of the life we once knew?
It is easy to frame competing arguments on several different dimensions of the COVID pandemic. Any suggested here are cautiously offered in the realisation that there are few easy answers.
I have seen COVID claim a couple of lives (and threaten those of others, some now with ongoing health complications), but many more people have suffered to a lesser degree. I am conscious, then, that people’s experience of the virus might well shape their views as to the hierarchy of responsibilities that governments should supposedly adopt. Irrespective of personal views on the vaccine, though, what about the notion that people might need to prove double vaccination – on a vaccine passport possibly linked to the scanning of QR codes – before gaining entry to public places?
The following thoughts are an attempt to balance the issues at hand. They focus on the example of re-entry to churches, given this is the world I live in from day to day. I am currently in a listening phase, seeking input widely – from churches, leaders, and individuals. It’s naturally Impossible to be definitive about actions and outcomes when the landscape is evolving before us, but here’s some current musings for what they’re worth.
1. An ongoing health emergency means health remains the overriding concern.
As much as I have struggled with many of the policies and practices of the Victorian state government in recent years, I recognise that there is an overriding concern for the health of our citizens. A medical emergency triages our relative rights and subordinates freedoms to the collective need to protect people from a greater harm.
Governments are very reluctant to allow case numbers to rise and put pressure on hospitals. Those suggesting that our numbers are much lower than in other countries, or than for flu cases in previous years, might be overlooking the fact that it is the strict lockdown measures that have been preventing spiralling caseloads.
To potentially keep people from returning to churches, then, is not so much about violating the biblical mandate to meet regularly (Hebrews 10:25) – that is a simplistic argument that demands a particular interpretation of the Bible. There is a clear need to counter a harmful virus with some short-term measures that need creatively different approaches to gatherings for now.
In the Old Testament, lepers were asked to wear face coverings and socially distance (Leviticus 13:45-46). They were not permanently banished. No-one is being banished now. God is not aggrieved by Christians taking responsible health measures. (And leprosy is a useful analogy, given those among us who appear to be clear of the virus still need to be regarded as potential carriers, with the unvaccinated at increasingly serious risk upon any re-opening).
2. Increased freedoms should not be confused with deprivation.
Small teams are currently the only live attendees at recorded church services but 100% of people are welcome online (almost always). To increase live participants to some higher number soon is an improvement and not a deprivation, while the same 100% still have access to ongoing online events.
No, the current limits are not ideal. No, they don’t easily allow connection with new people. What they do, though, is force us to focus on individuals’ growth, wellbeing, and engagement in creative new ways that become a silver lining in the COVID clouds.
Yes, it is difficult for everyone. Yes, it is far from ideal. Much of the community support and other great work that churches do to serve people has had its momentum halted with a detrimental impact on individuals. Diminished income is also limiting the help people can receive and mental health concerns are undoubtedly escalating.
This is just not the full story. What would the mental health of society would truly look like if families were to have to face long-term hospital stays by spouses, parents, children, and friends, let alone death?
3. Major new ethical problems warrant grace and patience
I’m not sure it can be at all straightforward to balance the rights of people to privacy concerning their vaccination status with the rights of organisations to protect their people. Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby once claimed in a discussion about the ‘need to know’ that he needed to know everything! We would perhaps all like to be fully informed about those in our midst who may pose a risk, yet some would see this as a gross, and unnecessary, infringement of basic human rights.
All of us are acting on insufficient information, though, whether about viruses, vaccinations, or the road out of lockdown. It is helpful to remind ourselves that, amidst limited knowledge, and regardless of others’ views and how illogical or ill-informed they may sometimes seem, most people truly care about the wellbeing of those around them. We surely don’t want to neglect the need to bear with one another in love, despite any differences or dissatisfactions.
While governments may well stipulate the terms on which public access restrictions will eventually be lifted, leaders need to consider what they will do with any freedoms within those parameters. It may continue to be difficult for some churches to open at all for the moment, and that has to be ok if motivated by a concern for people. Workplaces are also faced with what to do when staff want to work from home indefinitely; that might not ultimately be acceptable but neither is it an easy matter to risk a worker’s safety. One person’s rights often compete against another’s and that fact ought to concern any caring Christian. No wonder courts, insurers, and governments are guiding many next steps.
As for churches re-opening, it would seem that Victorians can accommodate up to twenty unvaccinated people by November 5 if all roadmap requirements are met. Simple. Pre-book tickets as for other events, first-in-best-dressed for the twenty (and no walk-ups in the short term). Then lodge the vaccination proof with the church for anyone else. No details and you’re in the queue for the 20 seats. If the minister also refuses to vaccinate, there’s only 19 left. Again, this is not about shunning those who miss out but, rather, about protecting people. Let’s therefore innovate and accommodate by every other legitimate means, at least for the short-term season of emergency in which we find ourselves.
Grace (Colossians 4:6) and patience (Romans 12:12) are important virtues amidst a pandemic which is still playing out before us. It hardly behoves any Christian to protest their rights vociferously. Like a cricketer needing to keep his or her head still, we need to face up to each ‘delivery’ and play it on merit, lest we take a wild swing and get ‘caught out’ to our own eventual regret.
4. Vaccination passports are not weapons.
Insurers are becoming increasingly nervous about covering leaders who protest publicly against vaccination when they oppose medical advice. Vaccine passports might well appear to infringe against people’s rights, too. If someone were, by virtue of their comments or their actions, though, to facilitate the spread of the virus then they could well contribute to one or more deaths. It is the people and not a vaccine passport that would inadvertently become the more harmful weapon in such circumstances. And the knives might then be out for unwitting weaponisers.
Of course, concerns over the long-term safety of vaccinations might mean that some parents still wish to safeguard their children, for example, as an act of love. It is also an act of love, however, to want to ensure that the very same people (and a great many more) are protected from the virus. It’s potential for harm would seem far greater, given we now have many millions of vaccination records to suggest that they are at least as safe as those used for other maladies.
Those accused of virtue-signalling by posing at vaccination centres for their social media updates are generally trying to make a leadership statement of concern for the welfare of others on the basis of the overwhelming scientific support.
Those on either side of the fence on this issue are listening to different experts. Almost any case can be built on the polarising matter of vaccination. In any field of knowledge, though, we see the constant evaluation of competing perspectives. Consensus doesn’t convert everyone, but it does win the day in the research world. I believe, therefore, that it is responsible to vaccinate, as much as I want to respect the choice of those opposed to doing so.
I hold a Ph.D., but not in medicine. My knowledge of the field is limited to undergraduate biochemistry studies – enough to know that mRNA will not alter our genetic code, but I am nevertheless not a scientist. I therefore place my life in the hands of experts, knowing that they will sometimes be wrong (and the thalidomide tragedy of the 60s comes to mind). As a Christian, though, I live by a faith that is not shaped by Youtube or Facebook, a faith that does not bunker down in trepidation or succumb to the oppressions and opinions of armchair experts or random online scientists.
I sometimes wonder what fears and anxieties might really be ruling the stridency of some of those in churches who will pursue an agenda with strength that ends up bypassing their primary call to focus on the Christian gospel as agents of faith, love, healing, and grace. Some will even countenance the breaking of laws regarding mask-wearing and protests (against Romans 13:1), while others draw bizarre comparisons to Revelation 13’s ‘mark of the beast’ as if to presume some vague modern-day parallels to a highly-symbolic reference can be determined with any certainty.
Surely, too, we cannot countenance the demonising of leaders who are simply trying their best to navigate a crisis, no matter what we think of their various policies. We are called to pray for leaders and not to attack them. Suggestions that our choice is between conformity to ‘the world’ or honouring God are unnecessarily polarising. What is the main game to be here?!
A message to those standing up for their rights at public protests: stay home, mask up, keep safe. The police are surely deserving of better than the awfulisation they face from public critics when they are just trying to do their job and enforce rules for optimum health. Melbourne is currently suffering through the penalty of a construction lockdown because some in the industry thought they were above the law. Should police really have to tolerate the brazenness of citizens – Christians apparently among them – whose negative actions communicate even more loudly than their emotive words?
I recently made a submission in response to the concerning desire to decriminalise sex work in this state, given the implications for local neighbourhoods. I have written on many other matters over the years that seem to me to erode important values and freedoms. I just don’t see that this is one of them, as much as I want to see a return to pre-lockdown privileges, as does anyone else.
This is a time for churches to shine, though, for Christians to be known for what we are for and not against. It is a time to bring clarity and confidence to the many in our world looking for missional leadership from disciple-making volunteers just as committed to serving Jesus as ever. Where we disagree, we do so in grace. The world around us needs people who can role-model a faith that is built on a solid biblical foundation, not on fear, not on suspicion, and not on a presumption of rights that sadly and inevitably offend against the rights of others.