A little reality check

Published March 14, 2020, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin



Fr. Rolando V. Dela Rosa, O.P.
Fr. Rolando V. Dela Rosa, O.P.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)has triggered an obsessive and irrational fear that is altering our way of life and our relationship with others. In the past, a sneeze was usually greeted with “God bless you!” Today, when a person sneezes, especially in a crowded place, everyone takes cover, as though someone has just detonated a bomb. I dread the day when a fart is more socially acceptable than a sneeze.

The exaggerated efforts to control the spread of the disease—like Italy’s lockdown of the whole country, and the quarantine of millions of people in China and now in the Philippines— create the impression that such extraordinary measures indicate that the dangers COVID-19 poses are insurmountable.

But consider this: the risk of dying from the disease is still low (unlike SARS, AIDS, MERS-CoV, and other recent epidemics). Also, the casualties of COVID-19 are mostly those suffering from pre-existing health problems. In the United States, around 49 million people contracted ordinary flu from October, 2019, to February 29, 2020. Around 52,000 died from it. But no country has declared the ordinary flu as a pandemic. So our overblown fear of COVID-19 mainly comes from the fact that it is new and the cure is yet unknown.

The mismatch between the actual threat posed by the disease and our perception of it is aggravated by sensationalized news made by reporters who seem all too eager to update us on the number of people who had contracted the disease and those who had died. But they seldom give us updates on the number of those who have already recovered. With the misleading speculation by self-declared experts and the rumors and myths spread through the social media, our minds tend to imagine only the “worst case scenario” regarding COVID-19.

Fear leads our minds to conjure up worst-case scenarios. We attract what we expect. The sociologists W. I. Thomas and Dorothy Thomas once formulated a theorem that goes: “If we define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” A more morbid version of this goes: “If you think that something will go wrong, it will.”

A timely reality check was recently made by Bishop Pascal Roland of Belley-Ars in France who is convinced that fear is a more lethal epidemic than the COVID-19. While he admits that it is important to adopt precautionary measures against the disease, he laments the fact that many churches around the world, in their desire to prevent the spread of the disease,  have canceled the celebration of the Mass entirely, stopped the administration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, imposed strict rules on receiving communion, prohibited recollections and spiritual retreats, as well as devotional rituals and practices.

He declares that he has no intention of doing the same in his diocese because he believes that the church must remain a sanctuary where everyone feels safe, not a place that one enters at great risk on his health or life.

He asks pointedly: “Should you stop coming together to pray and worship? Should you shut yourself up at home? Should you raid the supermarket to stock up on reserves as though preparing for an attack by an enemy? No! Because a Christian knows in whom he has placed his trust. So let’s not give in to the epidemic of fear!”

It is beneficial to heed his words. In the past, horrific calamities, like an earthquake, super-typhoons, or tsunamis elicited in us a great sense of empathy, prompting us to find ways to get in touch and help the victims. But the COVID-19 has prompted us to adopt a no-touch policy and isolate ourselves from those suspected of carrying the disease. Enforcing “social distancing” without encouraging people to help one another can lead to alienation or apathy.

The good bishop observes that this collective panic we are witnessing today reveals a distorted valuation of suffering and death, and this, in turn,manifests the anxiety-inducing effects of not seeing God in the bigger picture of one’s life.