Sunday, March 07, 2021

The disjunctions of risk in an old-fashioned world

 In a recent Facebook post set to public, Bret Laird, a pastor here in the Kalamazoo area, makes an excellent point: All the talk about the alleged Christian duty to curtail our meetings due to Covid ignores the very nature of risk in the world in which Christianity was born and spread--the whole world, in fact, up to the early 1900s at least. Pastor Laird uses the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics early in the 20th century as a starting point for his discussion.

I would like to jump off from Pastor Laird's comments and make similar comments of my own, without using his specific numbers. Just to be "generous", let's take this piece's estimate from September of about 1% infection fatality rate for Covid, noting that this is in an article that is trying to debunk an overly rosy view of the virus's harmfulness. As the piece notes, some estimates of IFR have been lower, but let's take the higher one. Of course, that rate varies greatly from one group to another. Well and good. The case fatality ratio (which involves only detected cases and hence will be higher, since it involves more symptomatic people) has been wildly differently estimated from one country to another. The WHO more or less throws up its hands and suggests trying to avoid one's biases, noting that estimates of this ratio have ranged from .1 to 25%!

Now, let's consider a world with no antibiotics and no vaccines. The world, in fact, in which Christianity came into existence. The world in which the Jewish people came into existence. The world in which God commanded multiple feasts per year (in the Old Testament) and many sacrifices, which had to be carried out in Jerusalem once Solomon built the Temple. The world in which Christians were commanded not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. The world in which 3,000 people were baptized into the new Christian faith on the day of Pentecost. The world of pilgrimages, evangelistic meetings, huge numbers receiving Communion together, the world of "greet one another with a holy kiss."

And let's think about disjunctions. When you have no antibiotics, pneumonia (an infectious disease) is a real scourge. One estimate of its case fatality pre-antibiotics is a whopping 30%. That's case fatality rather than infection fatality, because it's very difficult to know who is technically infected with the pneumococcus, if they present no symptoms. But there's also smallpox, which was a separate real scourge, also with an estimate CFR (in an older world) around 30%.

You begin to get the picture. I'm not going to go look all of these up to get estimates of the probability of your dying of them, back when there was not very good medical care, no antibiotics (where relevant), and no vaccines to prevent them or make you have much milder symptoms. But let's just list a few more infectious diseases to keep the interest going--tuberculosis, typhoid fever, German measles (not very deadly in itself to the one showing symptoms but quite dangerous to the unborn child of a pregnant woman), etc. Oh, did you say something about long-term effects? Well, there was the scarring from smallpox, even if you recovered. There's the possibility of permanent sterility from mumps. Even seasonal influenza was deadlier in 1900 than it is in 2020, probably deadlier still in AD 100, and there were no flu shots to prevent it.

Now, consider: For any given church meeting, Israelite feast, or other religious gathering throughout the history of the people of God prior to the wonders of modern medicine, it is absolutely obvious that the probability that someone or other, as a result of that gathering, would catch one or the other of these infectious diseases and either die or have permanent, serious health consequences was far higher than the probability, in 2020, that that will happen from Covid as a result of a meeting of comparable size.

But (you might say), "they" didn't know that "back then." Well, actually, there have been plenty of centuries when people were able by sheer observation to get the idea that you could catch a disease by gathering together, even prior to knowing about germs. But waive that. God knew. God commanded that His people gather together, even en masse (pun intended), despite knowing, beyond all shadow of a doubt, with perfect foreknowledge, that people would die physically of infectious diseases as an indirect result of obeying those commands. Evidently God had other priorities. Whaddaya know?

If the church had ceased to gather or even had significantly curtailed gathering as a result of a danger of a death from infectious disease as a result of gathering, equal to that risk from Covid, now, then the church would scarcely have gathered throughout all those earlier centuries, and Christianity as we know it, and Judaism as it was before the Fall of Jerusalem, would never have existed. And, if you care about that kind of thing, a lot fewer people would ever have heard of the true God or known him, been discipled into his Church, and gone out to reach others. And also, while I'm at it, if everybody had tried to cover half of their faces in all of these gatherings for all that time, a lot of other good things would have been lost as well. But I'll leave that part as an "exercise for the reader" rather than saying more about it here.

This consideration about the multiplicity of infectious diseases that used to be stalking around this world should strike down at a single blow the idea that "this time it's different," that we are in some unprecedented and "temporary" situation (where the word "temporary," at a year and counting, with no clear end in sight, has become a kind of sickening joke) in which we should just submit "for now" to significant curtailment of normal life and religious practice, because we are "in a pandemic" and all the usual notions of normal life simply don't apply. And it should reveal for the utter falsehood that it is the claim that the Judeo-Christian God is pleased with us if we cease to meet in person, to evangelize, to gather, and disapproves of us if we, like Pastor Coates in Canada, carry on with such nefarious religious activities. Indeed, the more one thinks about it the more such a claim comes to seem like something nigh to blasphemy. Perhaps a well-intentioned blasphemy, but then, the Bible knows about well-intentioned blasphemy. Just ask Uzzah. I'd say that those fellow believers who are out there lecturing Pastor Coates and those who agree with GraceLife Church about their (alleged) duty to obey God by cutting way back on the services of Christ should think again.

For when one thinks of God's beloved servants, whose beautiful feet upon the mountains have for thousands of years brought glad tidings of peace, one should start suspecting that that is what God wants. Maybe we should be worried about displeasing him quite seriously by bringing all of that to a crashing stop. Maybe God has priorities other than avoiding a virus or an infectious bacterium. Any one of them, or all of them put together.

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