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Existential Risk and the Sabbath of the Land

3 Apr 2020

In this uncertain time, Associate Research Fellow Greg Smith discusses the existential risks we currently face and wonders whether there is anything we can learn from the biblical notion of sabbath?

There has yet to be a pandemic that is an existential risk to the human species. In the worst recorded pandemic to date, the “Black Death” of the 14th century, about one third of Europe’s population are estimated to have died. The population in England in 1400 was perhaps half what it had been 100 years earlier. Even on the most pessimistic modelling, and without effective measures to control the spread of infection, the current Covid-19 pandemic will have only minor effects on demography. While mathematical models predict anything from 20,000 to 250,000 deaths in the UK directly attributable to the virus, it is worth remembering that there are approximately 500,000 deaths a year in normal times from a variety of causes. Of course, there is a risk that at some time in the future a more cataclysmic pandemic may sweep the globe; other apocalyptic risks are available.

For many of us, especially if we operate in the faith, community or small business sector, the idea of “risk assessment” is at best a necessary hassle, which we undertake grudgingly to stay within the law. At the other extreme, insurance companies and epidemiologists have developed a highly abstract science for calculating and mitigating risk. Indeed, the academic and public health community were fully aware of the risks associated with a viral pandemic. With international public health networks in place, and the unprecedented ease of global information sharing, one could argue that national leaders and policy makers should have been better informed, better prepared and quicker to take appropriate action. However, we are where we are, and one can only hope and pray that unprecedented measures will help the global community get back in control of the epidemic in months rather than years.

As individual human beings, most of us are not very good at assessing risks. This often results in irrational behaviour: for example, I am terrified of air travel (despite knowing that no other mode of travel results in fewer casualties per passenger mile) whilst also continuing the much more dangerous habit of cycling on urban roads. The rumour mill of social media only exaggerates irrational fear, stoking the current panic-buying.

Yet coronavirus does present a real risk which is beyond our personal control. For most of us, there is a substantial probability of a miserable week or so of sickness, from which we will recover. For those of us who are older, suffering from underlying health conditions, poorer, or working on the front line in hospitals, the risk of dying is much increased. Sadly, for some of us it will reduce our “healthy life years”. In the long term, of course, we are all dead, and one thing the virus is doing is making us aware of our own mortality, prompting us to consider and talk about the reality of death in ways we have been reluctant to do in ordinary time.

From the point of view of governments, the major risks can be summarised as: loss of control and then being held responsible for catastrophic failure of policy. The potential breakdown of healthcare systems at the peak of the epidemic is a nightmare for healthcare managers. Doubly so in the UK where one of the few “sacreds” that is still shared across society is the NHS. Politicians must dread the risk to political and social stability.

Economically, the situation has gone beyond risk; it is already a cataclysmic shock to world and national economies. Recovery, particularly in sectors such as travel and leisure will take many years, if not decades, and within a capitalist framework further austerity, growing inequality and extreme poverty seems inevitable. The emergency policy interventions of recent weeks, which would have seemed inconceivable at the start of the year, may be welcome and essential, but are largely unassessed risks of great magnitude. There is no wonder people are beginning to debate whether radical international lock-downs are an over-reaction.

One would hope that Christians, especially as we prepare to celebrate Easter, are in a better place to cope than most. People of faith are those who have taken a punt on the risk that this life is not the end. As people of hope, we may be well placed to offer significant and sacrificial compassionate service. But can our faith withstand the test of fear, chaos, and the threat of death? There are attempts by some to tell the world what God is doing through this pandemic: as judgement on sin, as warning to repent, as an opportunity to pray for signs and wonders of healing, or as a harbinger of revival. Yet there are no easy theodicies; as Tom Wright argues, it is mainly a season for lament. Epidemics merely show that the world is not the way God intended it to be, the way we would wish it to be, or even the way it shall be in the age to come.

The current pandemic is clearly a kairos moment, when the whole world will need to draw breath and review our fundamental values. When Boris Johnson is forced to admit that there is indeed such a thing as society, we may find hope of a pendulum swing away from neoliberal individualism, where risk is increasingly privatised, towards a politics of the common good. Alan Rusbridger may be right to suggest that, “amid our fear, we’re rediscovering utopian hopes of a connected world”.

As pollution levels and carbon emissions have fallen drastically environmental benefits are already being observed, though we do not know if they will be sustained into the longer term. Despite punditry and predictions the future remains unclear, though there are almost certainly going to be some long-term cultural and social transformations.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the account of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians concludes: “So the message of the LORD spoken through Jeremiah was fulfilled. The land finally enjoyed its Sabbath rest, lying desolate until the seventy years were fulfilled, just as the prophet had said.”

Perhaps this pandemic period could lead to a similar Sabbath effect, through which a greater human flourishing, and a respite from the desolation of God’s good earth eventually emerge?

More blogs on religion and public life…

The Plague Doctors: Imagining the pandemics of the future by Karen Lord

Liberty and response-ability in the time of coronavirus by Tina Hearn

My organism knows so much more than I do by Jeff Leonardi

Review of ‘The Road to Unfreedom’ by Timothy Snyder by John Reader

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