by Steve Golden —
We’re in the middle of a crisis, and I don’t mean COVID-19 or widespread riots. For the last two months, millions of Americans have been forced out of work, out of their livelihoods, away from their friends, and into their homes. Early in the shutdowns, social media was filled with jokes and memes from introverts about how they’d been preparing their entire lives for this moment. But quarantining physically healthy people in their homes for weeks on end apparently doesn’t always lead to a rediscovered love of board games and family time, as reports continue to emerge that mental health issues, suicide, and abuse are rapidly rising.
The Washington Post asserted in early May that the coronavirus pandemic has placed the US “on the verge of another health crisis, with daily doses of death, isolation, and fear generating widespread psychological trauma.” The Census Bureau found in a recent survey that “a third of Americans now show signs of clinical anxiety or depression.” Related to increased depression and anxiety is an increase in substance abuse as a way of coping. Speaking as a family clinic RN, I can attest to the spike in mental health issues as well as increased substance abuse. The physicians I work with repeatedly comment about how many patients have come in over the last two months with complaints of new onset depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse.
NPR reported that child sex abuse is on the rise, as the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) has seen a 22% increase in calls with 67% of minors saying the perpetrator is a family member and 79% saying “they were currently living with that perpetrator.” The American Psychological Association (APA) acknowledged in April 2020 that the COVID-19 pandemic (as well as any national crisis) increases the risk for domestic violence and child abuse. And while abused partners are normally instructed to have a “safety plan” in place (e.g., knowing where the nearest shelter is), the APA states that “shelters are closing or under-resourced, emergency rooms are full and people don’t want to go out in public and risk getting COVID-19.” The increase in domestic abuse isn’t limited to the United States; the New York Times reports that calls related to domestic violence have been increasing around the world, including in China, Spain, and France.
Piling on to these issues is the fact that loved ones are being forced to die alone, something so disturbing that even doctors are speaking out about how unethical these draconian hospital no-visitor policies are. One man, CNN reported, “was whisked into an ambulance near his home on New York’s Upper East Side last week. He never saw his family again. Kaminski died days later of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Because of fears of contagion, no visitors, including his family, were allowed to see him at Mt. Sinai Hospital before he died.” Other stories of patients forced to die alone are here, here, and here.
One doctor wrote that “forcing people to die alone violates all four ethical principles (do no harm, help the sick, autonomy, and justice).” More than that, leaving loved ones to die alone violates our very humanity and leads to psychological harm as people who weren’t present for a loved one’s death often struggle to grieve properly—especially when they could have been present but were prevented by a visitor policy.
Standing in the Gap
These lockdowns and widespread quarantines of perfectly healthy people and their families can only be described as evil. And in the face of an evil that says community and relationships are not allowed . . . an evil that treats human beings as nothing more than pathogen-carriers to be corralled . . . the Church must stand in the gap.
The Church has an opportunity to provide hope and help to people who are hurting because their government has failed them. Christians and non-Christians alike have lost jobs, are suffering from mental health issues, and have had loved ones die alone since early March. Some may be on the brink of suicide, and others may be suffering abuse at home.
Many churches, however, shut down voluntarily or were later forced to shut down as part of statewide lockdown orders. And while temporarily suspending services and small group meetings may have helped “flatten the curve” (though the jury’s out on how effective any of these measures really are), these moves did not help the stability of congregants’ mental health and family relationships. Moreover, as many government services have been closed during the pandemic, hurting people may have nowhere else to go but the Church, which raises some questions: What are churches doing to support their members’ mental health? In their zeal to obey every government dictate, have churches sacrificed their witness and usefulness to those around them? Are we so concerned about keeping 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others that we fail to offer a hug to a hurting person who simply needs to know someone still cares?
My mom battled brain cancer for 3 years, and in early March of this year her health rapidly declined. She died surrounded by us—her family—on March 15, just as President Trump declared a national emergency related to the pandemic. We were blessed she was able to die at home with her family, and not alone in a hospital. After a week of being by my mom’s side, doing what hospice was not able to because of COVID-19 restrictions, I wanted nothing more than to return to my church and small group and grieve with brothers and sisters in Christ who could remind me of our hope in Christ. But instead, I came back to Kansas to find my church closed and my support system relegated to their homes. My life lost all sense of normalcy when Mom died, and the process of finding normal again became increasingly complicated with the pandemic.
When my church finally resumed in-person services, I saw one of my best friends and cried when we hugged, as I realized how badly I needed that kind of social interaction. Zoom meetings and Facebook live streams simply could not replace those relationships. I don’t think I’m alone in those feelings. I call these sweeping lockdowns and quarantines evil because God said at the beginning that it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18), and while that statement referred to Adam’s lack of a mate, I think Scripture is clear that humans broadly are meant to be in relationship with other humans.
Rules and laws that separate us the way COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have, force us to do what’s unnatural, and for no good reason—quarantining the sick makes sense, not quarantining the healthy. And if church history has taught us anything, it’s that we can be prudent and protect others from illness, while still risking ourselves to be a comfort and witness to those who need it. Is that what the Church is doing when it measures how many feet are between congregants or prohibits members from shaking hands and hugging? Respect boundaries, absolutely. But now more than ever, we need to move—literally!—toward those in need, to show them the love of Christ. No one dies without God’s divine permission, but when we do go home, may it be said of us that we truly lived.