A couple of days ago, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has defended his refusal to reinstate COVID-19 health restrictions ahead of Christmas, saying it’s a matter of “personal responsibility”.
“When it comes to face masks”, he said, “we recommend face masks in areas where you can’t socially distance. It is the time for personal responsibility for our state. We are treating the people of our state like adults. If we need to tailor our responses from time to time, we will.”
The next day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “Australia must embrace a ‘culture of responsibility’ that places the onus on individuals to take protective actions against COVID-19 rather than a ‘culture of control and mandates’ by government.”
“Personal responsibility” is the latest mantra, to be placed alongside the repeated admonition that “we need to live with the virus”.
Is this a reasonable position to advocate?
We have lived through the first and second waves of the pandemic throughout 2020, and learnt much about how to handle the pandemic. We have demonstrated during those months that we could, indeed, pivot and change, as a society.
Then, the third wave in mid-2021 hit hard, as Delta ran riot through the community; but we made our way through that surge, as well, and rejoiced as we saw case numbers decline, hospital staff breath a little more freely, and ICU units step back from high, high stress moments.
And now, we are on the edge of a “fourth wave”—the Omicron wave. It is a wave that threatens to wreak more damage than the previous three have done. The numbers that are being projected by responsible medical researchers and national medical associations are deeply troubling.
We know the potential for, not just scores or hundreds of people to become ill, but thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps even more than this to become ill, and for a significant number of them to die. The deepening grief that is being spread by this virus is a third pandemic, alongside that of deaths and the second pandemic of mental ill-health.
The political leadership of our day is now standing outside the praetorium, side by side with Pontius Pilate, dipping their hands into that same bowl of water, washing their hands as they declare in lip-synch with him: “we are innocent of these consequences … it is a matter of personal responsibility”.
We, in the church, say often, that the zeitgeist of our time is one of rampant individualism – an individualism that has given up on the age-old tradition of corporate responsibility, communal care, extended-family responsibility for the wellbeing of each and every one of us.
The political mantra of “individual responsibility” is a crystal-clear manifestation of that abdication of communal responsibility for one another. It is the starkest instance, in our modern times, of the ancient problem that plagued Israel in its formational period: when every person did what was right in their own eyes. The utterly fraught nature of that period is attested in scripture, even in the airbrushed and polished accounts we have inherited in Judges.
So the place that I see for the church, now, at this time, is this: we are called to stand against the dominant culture of rampant individualism. We are called to bear witness to our concern that we have for the whole of society, not just for our own individual and localised part of that society.
We are called to work for the welfare of the city [and the whole state, or territory], not just to ensure that our local manifestation of the body of Church is able to continue with ‘business as usual’ whilst infections spread, hospitals once again overflow, ICU staff become hyper-stressed, people die, families grieve, and communities fracture under this heavy weight.
We are called to live out that love for the world which so fundamentally encapsulates who God is, how God acts, who were are as God’s people, what we are called to do in our daily lives. Love our neighbours. Love those around us. Love those far from us. Act in love.
Paul wrote wisely that if one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it. That is surely a mantra for our current time. There is suffering, and the potential for greater and more widespread suffering. The call we have is to stand with those who suffer; to act in ways that ensure that we do not occasion any further suffering; to behave responsibly so that we minimise the spread of COVID, to act in ways that demonstrate, not just “individual responsibility”, but communal care, corporate responsibility, in appropriate ways.
We know that the most vulnerable are most exposed to the risks that COVID infections bring—serious illness, ongoing ‘Long COVID’, and death. We know, also, that we are in pastoral relationship with, and bear pastoral responsibility for, many such vulnerable people. How do we best care for them?
Wearing a mask indoors (and outdoors in crowds), using the QR check-in code, sanitising, maintaining social distancing, bumping elbows rather than shaking hands—all of this is now commonplace, and ought to be the usual practice for all of us. We can take personal responsibility for this, indeed.
It seems to me that there is a more important step that we can take, by encouraging our Congregations to move back to online worship. To make the bold declaration that, simply wearing a mask and being careful about not hugging or shaking hands, is not an adequate response in the situation that we find ourselves. Not being together in person—especially not being together indoors (even if we open all the windows and turn up all the fans)—this is what is most responsible at this time. To make this decision irrespective of any official government advice is an important step to take.
Yes, individuals taking responsibility is important. But collective responsibility, acting corporately, with a care for all of us, is very important, at this time.