Intersections

Opportunity in the Midst of Pandemic

by: 
Bryan A. Just, MA

We are living in extraordinary times. For most of the world, the global COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of people’s minds. The accompanying uncertainty has been almost palpable, and people are craving every bit of information that they can get their hands on. With most sporting events and other activities cancelled or delayed, the “armchair coaches” have had to turn to other interests; now most people have become “armchair epidemiologists,” debating the merits of mask wearing and physical distancing, weighing the risks of trying to reach heard immunity before a vaccine, and analyzing every facet of the government’s response from local to federal levels.

This moment in time has created a unique opportunity for pastors and church leaders who are concerned with bioethics. Now more than ever before, people are interested in the questions that bioethics seeks to address. While it would be easy to leave teaching on these matters to experts and news outlets or to focus any teaching on COVID-19 specifically, I believe this misses the opportunity this moment offers. COVID-19 has provided an opening for broadening congregants’ thinking on bioethical issues beyond the current pandemic, and to do so from a distinctly Christian perspective. This chance should not be wasted.

As this piece continues, you will notice that I do not offer any specific positions on these topics, and that is deliberate. Beyond the constraints of space, my goal here is not to push for any particular position or policy, but rather to encourage Christians of all persuasions to go beyond what the media or a particular political party says and to bring biblical thinking to bear on the issues raised by COVID-19 specifically and bioethics generally. There are myriad ways that this could be done, but I offer two examples to help get us thinking about what this might look like.

One of the issues on the forefront of people’s minds is the development of a vaccine. Every little step forward is now front page news as people hope for a process that normally takes years or decades to be shortened to months. With this, however, comes a number of ethical concerns. How rigorously will the vaccine be tested when the process is rushed? How well will people understand the risks and benefits associated with a vaccine (informed consent)? How much will the vaccine cost, and might the cost be prohibitive for those with lower incomes? Should the vaccine be mandated? Could the government be using the vaccine for something more sinister? For many, these concerns and fears are very real: approximately 35% of Americans say they would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, even if it was free.[1]

Pastors thus have a wonderful opportunity to address these issues, and not just for a potential vaccine for COVID-19, but for vaccinations and their importance for public health in general. There are many biblical principles that can be brought to bear on these questions. By utilizing biblical teaching on human dignity (to emphasize why consent to medical treatment is important), justice (to address issues of vaccine cost and availability), love for neighbor (to remind us that our personal rights are not what should come first in these considerations), obedience to authority (to help us think about how Christians should react in the face of government-mandated initiatives), and faith in God (to remind us where our hope should be focused) we as church leaders can model biblical thinking about both the COVID-19 vaccination and vaccination and public health in general.

Another area that is rife for consideration is the evidence of healthcare disparities brought about by the pandemic. Reports have shown that the poor and minorities are at greater risk for contracting COVID-19 and are more affected by measures to contain it, such as the lockdowns.[2] This should not come as a surprise; the US has struggled with health disparities for many years and among diverse groups of people.[3] Again, by teaching on the biblical principles of justice, care for poor and oppressed, and love of our neighbor, we can shine a biblical light on disparities that arise as a result of the virus and make congregants aware of the larger disparities that exist in America. This can also be a launching point for a biblical discussion of race relations and oppression, as these issues can and have been linked, with one used as evidence for the other. While the pandemic response is currently at the fore, the issues it raises are applicable to other aspects of health—long after the current pandemic is over, we will still struggle with racial and economic inequalities in healthcare.

Oftentimes, Christian leaders in bioethics express frustration that the church seems largely uninterested in the issues of bioethics. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has spawned an intense interest where once there was none. Through sermons, Sunday School classes, small groups, and even informal conversation, pastors and lay leaders can use the pandemic as a “jumping off” point to spark an appreciation in their congregants for the issues of bioethics and how to approach them from a Christian perspective. And, Lord willing, perhaps in some it will kindle an interest that will last well into the future.



[1] Shannon Mullen O’Keefe, “One in Three Americans Would Not Get COVID-19 Vaccine,” Gallup, August 7, 2020, https://news.gallup.com/poll/317018/one-three-americans-not-covid-vaccine.aspx.

[2] CDC, “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 24, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html; Elise Gould and Valerie Wilson, “Black Workers Face Two of the Most Lethal Preexisting Conditions for Coronavirus—Racism and Economic Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, June 1, 2020, https://www.epi.org/publication/black-workers-covid/; Merlin Chowkwanyun and Adolph L. Reed, Jr., “Racial Health Disparities and Covid-19 — Caution and Context,” The New England Journal of Medicine 383, no. 3 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp2012910.

[3] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Communities in Action: Pathways to Health Equity (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2017), https://doi.org/10.17226/24624.