This week, an Axios poll found that 62 percent of Americans believe the pandemic is over—weeks after the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 is no longer a “public health emergency of international concern.”
More than three years after the virus first swept the globe and governments around the world shut down businesses, schools, and public venues, we can finally say the pandemic has ended.
The WHO estimates the coronavirus killed 20 million people worldwide. Even if the figure is inflated, anything near the ballpark of 20 million is a ghastly toll on humanity. Untold numbers still struggle with debilitating aftereffects made worse by the uncertainty about how long and how serious those aftereffects will be.
While COVID-19 will be with us forever, we can celebrate that the state of emergency is over. But some are not in a celebratory mood. In my conversations with students, pastors, friends, and family, I often hear an undercurrent of anger, even bitterness, when the pandemic comes up. Some seem eager to relitigate who said what about masking, social distancing, infection rates, or church closures years after the fact.
Now is a good time to declare a “pandemic amnesty.” As Emily Oster suggested in The Atlantic last fall, let’s start assuming each other’s good faith and “forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge.” Christians especially can lead the world in an attitude of grace for the things we collectively said and did during a confusing and unprecedented time.
The pandemic was hard. Navigating the complex medical, political, legal, economic, theological, and humanitarian concerns was difficult. Few of us were truly knowledgeable about every aspect: The epidemiologist could tell us about the likely course of infections, but not the legal issues involved in lockdowns. The lawyer could tell us about public health law but not about economic tradeoffs.
The economists could talk about the effect on GDP growth but could not weigh that against the human cost in either lost lives or prolonged isolation. The theologians could tell us to submit to government but also to protect our churches’ freedom, and each congregation had to do the balancing act on their own.
We got things wrong. Masks were not terribly useful unless you used an N95 and wore it just right. Some public schools stayed closed far longer than necessary. Social distancing was unnecessary outdoors. A lot of disinfection in public places was just hygiene theater.
Yet it was right to treat COVID-19 as a serious emergency and to act with an abundance of caution. Flippancy about masks and social distancing, especially early on when we did not know much, was unwise. Treating the virus as unimportant or unthreatening was grossly insensitive to older and immunocompromised people who were at extreme risk.
As much as we find it easy to criticize governments for the decisions they made in the spring of 2020, they likely could have made the pandemic shorter and less severe had they acted even faster, earlier, and more decisively than they did. Some officials made mistakes in the early days; that should not deter future decision-makers from doing all they can to protect public health in the next emergency.
The same is true for our local churches.
Churches faced a difficult decision about whether and how long to remain closed. Should they obey the government, or insist on their right to stay open? Should they close for the sake of elderly or infirm congregants most at risk from the virus? Or should they open for the sake of everyone else? Obey Romans 13, or Hebrews 10?
Different churches made different choices—and it isn’t clear to me that one answer was the right one for every church in every circumstance. Governments have legitimate authority in this field, and on balance, most churches should and did adopt a general posture of deference to the state in matters of public health. Some churches with a larger share of elderly members even chose to stay closed longer than legally required.
But churches in jurisdictions with a track record of hostility to religious freedom were justified in viewing pandemic restrictions with suspicion. While few churches had to resort to lawsuits, a few did, and they were almost entirely vindicated. We all benefit from the legal precedents that were established or strengthened from those legal victories.
We should recognize that different churches in different places had reason to approach COVID-19 differently. Indeed, that spirit of grace would have made the past three years more bearable. During the pandemic, churches split and pastors quit.
Last spring, over 40 percent of pastors said they had given serious consideration to leaving ministry, mostly because of loneliness, isolation, political divisiveness, and stress. Some church members were a burden, not a blessing, to their spiritual leaders by turning their church’s stance on COVID-19 into a litmus test of spiritual faithfulness.
Such divisiveness was unhelpful then—but carrying those divisions and hurts into the future would be worse. Let’s extend grace to one another. None of us had lived through a once-a-century global pandemic before, and Lord willing, none of us will again (though localized epidemics are likely).
That kind of grace requires both humility and patience. Faced with the unknown—do masks really work?—it is okay to admit, “I don’t know.” When we must make choices anyway—open or close the church?—it is okay to have different opinions.
When decision-makers make decisions we think are wrong, our natural desire to hold leaders accountable should be leavened by the grace that comes from knowing how hard leadership is in a confusing and unprecedented situation. Above all, we should remember that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).
We can disagree on such matters and still enjoy Communion together. The unity of the body of Christ is—should be—far more important.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His most recent book is The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism.