It turns out the COVID-19 pandemic has been a teaching moment for people of faith, says Jeff Levin, university professor of epidemiology and population health at Baylor University.
“No matter the origins of the outbreak, God is presenting us with an opportunity to be of service,” said Levin, director of the university’s program on religion and population health. “We have an obligation to not make the situation worse especially for people who are at risk.”
But one of the challenges posed by the pandemic is the huge amount of information available on the novel coronavirus – and also the amount of misinformation and unsafe advice coming from some religious groups, Levin said.
“Through their actions, they’re not just harming people in our community, they’re harming and putting members of their own congregation at risk.”
Levin spoke with Baptist News Global about the pandemic and its relation to faith and health. His comments are included here, edited for brevity and clarity.
In March you said you expected flare-ups of unsafe religious sentiments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Have you seen that happen since then?
There have been churches, congregations and pastors that have spread animosity, hate, fear and panic. It’s not just a Christian thing. There are synagogues, mosques, rabbis and ministers that are spreading very hateful messages and frightening people. They have been giving bad advice to congregations and encouraging them not to practice social distancing and not to engage in hygienic measures.
Have you seen examples of faith helping people through the pandemic?
Certainly. Just here in Waco, local congregations are reaching out and being of service to organizations in the community. We can sit and we can be fearful and self-absorbed or we can work in service of others. It seems like people are being much more compassionate, kind, friendly, nice and giving and other-regarding than before the pandemic. To me, that’s very hopeful. Maybe we’ll come out of this and things will be different.
What can people do to stay healthy?
Be smart. Social distancing is good, but we don’t need to necessarily hide out in our homes on lockdown and not have contact with people. I don’t think at this point that is necessary anymore, at least not in Texas. Carry alcohol wipes with you and stay home if you don’t feel well. I think people can gather, but just don’t overdo it.
In what ways can spirituality and faith help those continuing to shelter in place?
They provide a sense of hope and a sense of connection to something larger than oneself. Faith ideally reminds us that no matter what is going on right now, we are part of a larger story that’s playing out. No matter where we are, whether we’re sheltering in place or if we’re able to go out and about carefully, there is a role for each one of us to play.
What are your thoughts on the efforts to reopen states?
In Texas, we are stepping back from the massive lockdown. Personally, as an epidemiologist, I did not think the lockdown was necessary. I thought that was overkill. I like the idea of phasing things back open. The impetus to back off from a lot of the more severe social distancing measures was coming from religious groups. I don’t think faith institutions were being truly pastoral.
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