The U.S. set two disturbing records on Wednesday with more than 200,000 new coronavirus infections reported nationwide and 100,000 patients hospitalized in just one day. This brings the nation’s total to 14 million coronavirus cases and 272,000 fatalities since February. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday that the next three months are “going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”
We are running out of adjectives to describe this crisis: Staggering, sobering, harrowing, and heart-wrenching are just a few that come to mind as we enter deeper into a dark winter of suffering, loss, and hardship. But even as we wait for the arrival of at least two highly effective vaccines in the spring, we still possess the agency to mitigate the worst of this crisis. Right now the United States most needs drastic changes in individual behavior and changes in political leadership and policy.
A recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that if nearly all Americans were to wear facemasks when they leave their homes, we could save well over 100,000 lives, and perhaps more than half a million, through the end of February. As we have long argued, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing is a matter of discipleship, a Matthew 25 and Golden Rule imperative. And the bold leadership of pastors and faith leaders could be a game changer in depoliticizing mask wearing and persuading people to do what is right. But this message needs to be more boldly preached from the pulpit, taught in Sunday school, and reinforced through personal relationships — all of which can be done virtually.
Over Thanksgiving, news of record lines at food pantries and feeding centers across the country brought even greater urgency to the need for immediate political action. The ongoing political stalemate stands in sharp contrast to the outpouring of compassion by so many Americans and congregations, but even the most generous charitable efforts can’t compensate for the delays and deficits in political leadership. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):
Tens of millions of people are struggling to meet basic needs, according to the most recent Census data released on December 2, yet core parts of the relief that policymakers provided this spring have already expired or are slated to expire by the end of the year. … Waiting until next year would allow hardship to worsen further, causing harm to millions of people, and also result in a weaker economy and a slower recovery.
The deepening hunger crisis across the country is particularly concerning. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) estimates that a quarter of U.S. adults are currently suffering from food insecurity, and some 26-29 million (11 percent) of U.S. adults suffer from very low food security, meaning they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat. This is nearly three times the number of adults who didn’t have enough to eat in 2018. Meanwhile, Feeding America reports that food banks and food pantries have seen a 60 percent increase in people seeking charitable food assistance since the onset of the pandemic, even as the pandemic has caused donations to fall.
CBPP points out that the impacts “are particularly prevalent among the Black and Latino population. These disproportionate impacts reflect harsh, longstanding inequities — often stemming from discrimination, policies that furthered housing segregation, and other past and current barriers to good schooling, decent jobs, and needed health care — that this crisis is exacerbating.”
Fortunately a breakthrough seems possible: A bipartisan framework was assembled in recent days for a $908 billion coronavirus relief bill through private discussions among a small group of senators called the House Problem Solvers Caucus. The framework includes $160 billion for state and local governments, $180 billion in aid for jobless Americans, close to $300 billion in additional support for small businesses, and $16 billion to support vaccination distribution. The proposal would provide critical funding for schools and education needs; agricultural and nutritional assistance; rental assistance; child care; and rural broadband, among other areas. We must be crystal clear that the current package is not nearly enough but that this insufficient amount is absolutely necessary right now as a down payment on further help that must come from Congress early in 2021.
Sojourners has consistently highlighted that COVID-19 is disproportionately infecting and killing people who are already in vulnerable situations — those with pre-existing conditions, those who are incarcerated, those who lack health insurance, those experiencing poverty, older people, Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinx Americans. As such, the moral obligation of this nation to combat the pandemic is a moral imperative for Christians. If we are to truly follow the Matthew 25 directives to treat the most vulnerable how we treat Christ himself, then it's imperative that we get this pandemic under control.
Behind every lost life is a ripple effect of grief, pain, and loss. COVID-19 is surging in nearly every state in the country; this week the U.S. saw its highest one-day death tally at more than 2,800 deaths in a single day. The Biden-Harris administration needs to hit the ground running in January to combat the pandemic and save as many lives as possible — and the people in dire need across the nation cannot afford to wait until the new administration takes office for any hope of help from their government.
President Donald Trump’s complete intransigence to move on from his election loss and anti-democratic efforts to discredit the outcome has a direct impact on the government’s ability help all those who have found themselves struggling with joblessness, food insecurity, and homelessness due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Sojourners and its coalition partners in the Circle of Protection have urged Congress and the White House to pass additional relief repeatedly over the past few months, most recently two weeks ago, saying: “As you know, the pandemic death toll continues to rise and hunger is at historically high levels, especially among children. People of color have been hit hardest ... We are grateful that leaders of both parties see the need for a COVID relief in the lame duck session. Delay would have severe humanitarian consequences.”
The prophet Isaiah doesn’t mince words in condemning the cruelty and immorality of political leaders who ignore the plight of people caught in the crossfire of hardship, proclaiming, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (Isaiah 10:1-2). These timeless and prophetic words must reverberate across our churches and communities in this time of dire need. As the psalmist writes, weeping may endure for a night, but joy does come in the morning (Psalm 30:5). And in the context of COVID-19, the worst is likely to come in the months ahead, but our courageous actions to change behavior and policy can and will ameliorate suffering, save lives, and usher in a more joyous morning after we have overcome this pandemic.