How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?…But I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me. - Psalm 13:1,5-6
What began on March 16 as a 14 day voluntary suspension of activity has now morphed into a complex and confusing series of CDC guidance, federal recommendations, state executive orders with sporadic enforcement, and a “reopen” protest movement. Now on day 63 (as of this writing), those first 14 days when we had hoped to “flatten the curve” by “stay home, stay safe” seem a distant memory. The number of new positive test results and hospitalizations and deaths has been at a plateau since the end of April. Beaches and boardwalks are able to reopen - with certain restrictions, yet graduations, funerals, weddings, and other events where more than 10 people gather are still outlawed. And so we wonder, how long until we can worship again? When will this pandemic and the mitigation factors come to an end?
That all depends on how you determine the “end”. Historically, plagues (pandemics) have ended one of two ways - either the pathogen “burns itself out” or the people decide that the risk of infection is not as great as the consequences of continued isolation and economic impacts. In 21st Century America we have a third option which has not been used before in Western history - a political end. We’ll look at each of these and see if they give any guidance to “how long?” questions.
Pestilence, pandemics, plagues, etc. Have been with humankind for our entire recorded history. Those who hold to the theory of evolution state that bacteria and viruses are among the oldest life forms on earth - predating humans by billions of years. While we didn’t know about these pathogenic life forms until the invention of the microscope in 1625 and didn’t know how to treat them until Louis Pasteur’s work in the mid 1800’s. Penicillin, the first of all antibiotics was not available to the public until March of 1945. In only 75 years we have created hundreds if not thousands of antibiotics to deal with plagues. Yet viruses, being a genetic strand surrounded by a protein coat, are constantly mutating. That’s why we need a flu shot every year because there’s always a new version of a virus looking for a host. The same is true of SARS-CoV2. We now have SARS-CoV2a (Wuhan), SARS-CoV2b (Seattle), and SARS-CoV2d (New York) - I don’t know what happened to variant c. And this is in just the 5-6 months this virus has existed.
The way plagues have worked in the past is that a pathogen would enter an area by some means (vector) - insect borne, humans from abroad, shifting climate patterns, etc - and then infect a local area. Those people may travel to a neighboring village or even internationally (Crusades, exploration) and bring the pathogen to a new place.
Infection would spread quickly through the population and those infected would have 2 responses. They would all get sick, but some would recover and develop immunity and others would die of the microbe. Either way the pathogen would no longer have anyone new to infect and so the plague would end for the survivors of that generation. This is the “herd immunity” model that we hear about on the news. In an age with vaccines and antibiotics this historical way of plague formation may not repeat itself.
So looking at the medical method of determining an end, it’s really hard. Only 2 pathogens have ever been declared “ended” by the medical community - smallpox and polio. Smallpox still exists in bioweapons labs, and a variant of polio exists that still affects deer and goats but is not transmissible to humans. For a pandemic to be “over” from this perspective, there must be ZERO new cases in a year worldwide. The bubonic plague (aka Black Death) that ravaged Europe in 1348-1350 and caused about 80% mortality in those who were infected (40-50% of the entire population of Europe) is still with us. There were cases of yersinia pestis in Arizona and New Mexico just this past December. It is now easily treated with antibiotics, but the disease causing bacterium is still alive and well on fleas on rats just as it’s ever been. I don’t think the medical / infectious disease community will be saying Covid-19 is “done” anytime soon.
This poses a problem for the modern way of determining when a pandemic is over. The political model is a relatively new way of dealing with the spread of disease. Never before has the government issued executive orders curtailing the Constitutional freedoms of Americans due to a medical crisis. The last time the US had a pandemic was the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. The government asked churches to close and public gatherings to be suspended. As we still trusted the government back then, most businesses, bars, and churches willingly shut down for a few weeks or months. We should also note that back in 1918 we were just getting out of WWI and over 90% of the population still lived on farms and were “socially distanced”. Now with executive orders determining which businesses are “essential” and which are not, and with the power to compel compliance through prison and / or fines, we find ourselves in uncharted waters. Wisconsin, like many other states, limited the power of the executive branch to 30 days. A governor can take up emergency powers and do as he (or she) pleased, but only for 30 days or the end of the incident prompting the emergency. For anything more than that, the state’s legislature (the branch responsible for making laws) would have to weigh in and extend them. New Jersey has no such prohibition. Historically this has always been bad. There is usually some “emergency” that drives the leader to take on emergency powers, always with the assurance that those powers will be laid down after the emergency is over. The problem with this is that the emergency never ends. Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Machievelli, and many other dictators throughout history have followed this pattern. Even Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars uses this model.
Given the criteria for the medical community declaring an end to the emergency situation, it is unlikely that a government where “Data determines dates” is going to call an end to the pandemic anytime soon. Another issue with this way of ending a pandemic response is the determination of data. As we have more testing done, there will be more confirmed positive cases. We still have an average of 62% of those testing positive having NO symptoms, and another 26% listing the symptoms as mild or moderate. Of the remaining 12% requiring hospitalization, the mortality rate is staggering (over 75%). The listing of “deaths due to Covid-19” is also problematic. If a 76 year old, obese, male with history of heart disease and diabetes (type 2 progressing to type 1) passes away after testing positive for Covid-19, what is listed as “cause of death”? The way reporting is done now, that heart attack would be listed as a Covid-19 death - even if the Corona virus was just a contributing factor. So waiting on the government to say the pandemic is past may be a long wait.
The last way a pandemic ends is when the populace says “enough is enough”. This happens when the common man decides that the risk of catching or suffering from the pathogen is less than the risk of harm that would come from continued quarantine. The farmer has to bring his crops to market, or they will rot in the field and lead to famine - which is worse? The baker needs to fire up his ovens and bake bread for the village or people will starve - what is the greater danger? Many of the protests we see on the news and businesses reopening in defiance of executive orders fall into this category. We’ll look at this in more detail and how it applies to churches resuming their “business” of Word and Sacrament next week.
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.