My parish’s longtime adult lectionary teacher and matriarch loved to recall the question she once got about good people, bad people, hypocrisy and church.
A young woman said she had friends who never go to church, but donate their time and money to feed the hungry and care for the sick. Yet there was a businessman, a leader in our church, who sat in his pew so devoutly every Sunday during Mass, and then went back to his office every Monday morning and cheated people blind. So, she asked, what good does it do to go to church?
At least in the retelling, Agnes gave the most graceful and satisfying answer to this age-old question that I’ve ever heard: Imagine how much better your friends would be if they did come to church. And, more importantly for the sake of this conversation, imagine how much worse that businessman would be if he never came.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Agnes’ answer as COVID-19 races back across Europe, forcing a new round of lockdowns in nations such as England that botched the first wave and nations such as Germany that seemed to do everything right in the spring to contain the virus.
Add in the U.S. resurgence in states that didn’t take the virus seriously as well as those that locked down the longest and worked the hardest on contact tracing, and it’s tempting to say it’s hopeless: that it doesn’t matter how smart we are about keeping our distance or how aggressive we are about enforcing that distancing, because even if infections slip temporarily, the virus will keep circulating until most of us are infected or vaccinated.
This wasn’t what we bargained for back in March, when we thought that if only we would lock down our economy for two weeks, a month tops, the pandemic would fade away, and we could go back to our normal lives.
Earlier this month, an infection modeler who helped design Germany’s lockdowns told Science magazine the problem there was that instead of using the time between lockdowns to drive infection rates to zero, Germans lost their fear of the virus and went back to large gatherings and close quarters and unmasked faces. Not what we bargained for at all.
If Agnes were still with us, I think she’d say: Imagine how much worse things would be if Europe and the more aggressive states hadn’t kept their restaurants and bars and event venues closed and imposed mask and social-distance mandates. Imagine how much worse things would have gotten in South Carolina if we hadn’t done what little we have done.
Hospitals would have been crushed under exponential increases in infections — which alone would have frightened more people into their homes, doing deeper damage to the economy than even the strictest lockdowns have done.
And more people would have died. As The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle reminded us last month: “Even if you think we’re all going to get it, eventually, later is always better, because later means better treatment: A patient hospitalized with COVID-19 today has a much better chance of surviving than one who was hospitalized six months ago, and we should assume the same will be true looking backward six months hence.”
The other thing the new European lockdowns have made me think about is the importance of getting kids back into the classroom. Full time.
Germany went back into a tight lockdown two weeks ago, with one significant exception: schools. England is locked down so tight that a week and a half ago, one official had to issue an apology for saying (incorrectly) that people could still play tennis. But English schools remain open. France and Ireland also kept schools open when they locked down last month.
An August study by Europe’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control found that children accounted for fewer than 5% of all COVID-19 cases in the European Union and Britain, and concluded that closing schools “would be unlikely to provide significant additional protection of children’s health.” Officials across the EU roundly agree that the danger of being in school doesn’t begin to approach the danger of being away from school, even part time.
“Around the world, there is mounting concern that the pandemic is doing lasting harm to the academic and emotional development of an entire generation of children,” The New York Times reported after the latest lockdowns were announced. The article noted that German officials who coordinate education policy “stressed children’s right to an education, which they said is best served among peers, in classrooms,” arguing that: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken.”
Germany announced its latest lockdown the same day South Carolina’s final holdout, Lee County Schools, announced that it would finally let kids back in the classroom this past Thursday — which was four days shy of eight months since they were kicked out. Like those kids could afford to fall even further behind.
Lee County students were proceeded into the classroom only briefly by their counterparts in our capital city schools, who were allowed to return after Election Day and then, as in most S.C. districts, for just two days a week.
Germany and other European nations respect science and understand, much better than the United States, how serious this pandemic is. Yet they haven’t considered retreating to virtual learning as a serious option for months. There are at least three lessons there for us.