With these four in mind, how should we then approach the things that have come to dominate the Covid discussion: masks, avoidance of gatherings, vaccinations and do so forth?
The following are the interpretations we think best accord with a Christian understanding of the truth.
Masks: Masks prevent the largest of droplets from a sneeze or cough, but are very limited in usefulness when it comes to the aerosol particles. A sneezing or coughing person should isolate and test. Medical professionals are divided on whether masks make that much difference. Certainly doctors dealing with Covid patients report some protection from them. Universal masking is mostly futile, because it actually obscures the fact that only symptomatic people should be wearing masks. Initially, the CDC and others warned against universal masking. Masking of asymptomatic people for regular life is both unhelpful and unnecessary. Masks are not merely a medical matter: they obscure the face, interrupt communication, and make normal human interaction very difficult.
Verdict: Limited usefulness. Partial helpfulness in high infection seasons, or if you suspect you might be sick or exposed. Masks likely have an effect on viral load when a symptomatic person is present. We can respect the wishes of those who wish to wear one whenever in public. We can likewise respect those who do not believe in a mask’s efficacy and who do not have it on all the time.
If you wish to reduce the chance of inhaling viral particles to 0%, then you must self-isolate from the human race. It is unfair to ask every other healthy person to avoid you, keep distance from you, or be masked around you.
Gatherings: Indoor gatherings can increase the viral load (if sick people are present), so especially during flu season, it is important for there to be decent ventilation, and avoidance of overcrowding. It is futile to mask or social distance asymptomatic people; and symptomatic people should ideally not be present. In the unlikely event of an asymptomatic person being Covid-positive, the viral load is so low as to be insignificant, and will likely infect no one.
My church has been gathering now since June 2020 when the first lockdown was eased. In that time, we have not had a single case of someone infecting someone else at church. Most of our church has had Covid, but in every case I am aware of, they caught it in some other context, usually from face-to-face contact with a symptomatic individual, who was coughing or sneezing. We have had no known cases of someone getting it at church, and we certainly have had no mass outbreaks. In fact, as we have steadily given up on the initial alarmist precautions (no singing, no shaking of hands, social distancing, hand-sanitising, no handling of books or papers, no food and drink, universal masking) we have not seen a noticeable or verifiable change in infections. Not one. We may as well have never done any of those.
That doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind. We acknowledge the importance of ventilation, we recognise that symptomatic people should not attend our gatherings, and we encourage people to be more careful during periods of high infection. But the idea that our church services are super-spreader events is to be rejected.
Verdict: Mass gatherings in peak infection periods with symptomatic individuals and poor ventilation is risky. Gatherings in low infection periods with asymptomatic individuals is not risky, nor should social distancing really apply.
Vaccines: Vaccines should not be a source of contention between Christians. The vaccines are new, and the results are tentative. Those who are against the vaccines should not view them as sinister attempts to destroy humanity, and those who are in favour of them should not view them as the magic cure that will bring an end to Covid-19. Vaccines may not bring an end to masks or isolation in South Africa. Judging by the data coming from the northern hemisphere, it may very well be the case that we have a fourth or fifth wave, and experience another winter with overcrowded hospitals. Vaccination levels of over 80% have not prevented infections or hospitalisations in many countries. Some data even points in the other direction. Again, this is all tentative.
The best we can hope for is that Covid-19 eventually becomes a background flu disease that is no longer deadly. If you are vaccinated, then in theory, the disease has already become that for you. You have already reached the place when Covid-19 will be to you a kind of flu that is not damaging. What then are you waiting for? For it to disappear altogether? That won’t happen, not this year, or the next, or the next. Are you waiting for everyone else to be vaccinated? That won’t happen this year, or the next, or the next. So why then the permanent masking? Why the ongoing social distancing and avoidance of contact? You are waiting for a train that will never come if you are “willing to do this until we reach herd immunity”. If the goal is 100% certainty that no one will get sick or be hospitalised, then vaccines are just another thing added to the list of masks, distancing and sanitising, not the end of them.
Verdict: Vaccines will increase immunity for many people, they will be ineffective for some, and dangerous for a few. Judging if you are one of the many, the some, or the few, is a matter for your own conscience. It is very early in the game, and you have to go on the information you trust, and your knowledge of your body. If you are vaccinated, then you theoretically have more immunity, and an unvaccinated person is less of a threat to you than you might actually be to them, so you shouldn’t concern yourself with the unvaccinated. If you are unvaccinated, vaccinated people are not another class of human being who have compromised with the enemy, so you shouldn’t concern yourself with the vaccinated. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
Vaccine passports: As Christians, we should always be against all forms of tyranny: abuses of power where people are coerced to do things against their will. A vaccine passport, in many contexts, would be a kind of coercion. One place where we can never accept it is the church. The Word of God is free, and since it is for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, it is also for vaccinated and unvaccinated. We will never submit to a mandate that restricts the public gathering of the church to those who can present a vaccine passport.
The only thing that will bring an end to Covid-19 lockdowns is a treatment that removes or neutralises the virus, administered to those infected with it. This will mean the end of Covid-tracking, public mask mandates and so forth. The knowledge that serious Covid-19 is treatable and curable will relegate it to one of many other coronaviruses and flu viruses that are in the air.
For your own person and family, take whatever precautions you think are necessary. Perhaps you believe masks will provide protection; perhaps you believe hand-sanitiser will do so, perhaps you prefer to not shake hands. Perhaps you believe vaccination will do so. All of these are conscience matters for the individual. But once you have taken your precautions, you should be aiming at doing all the things God tells you to do: worship with His people, fellowship with them even outside of church, evangelise the world, disciple the saints. And remember, a gathering of believers is where we bring our different consciences and submit them to one another in the love of Christ. Maintain unity with each other, respect each other’s views, and do not allow this to polarise us.
How do we live with an endemic?
Live by revealed truth, not so-called fact. Do not live by lies, in the local church. Submit to God’s sovereignty over the disease. Live with hopeful joy, not fearful retreat. Make wise, sensible decisions regarding masks, gatherings and vaccines that open up ministry, not shut it down.