Shoppers enter a grocery store with a reminder to keep their distance. CNS photo/David Ryder, Reuters

Francis Campbell: There is much to learn from social distancing

By 
  • March 25, 2020

A Saturday afternoon walk seemed a healthy idea during the social distancing edicts foisted on citizens everywhere to fend off COVID-19 risks.

In suburban Nova Scotia, that walk can wind along a secondary highway and through a subdivision or two. At one corner, a man and five children, ranging in ages from three or four to early teens, were enjoying a makeshift basketball game. The net was pulled up to the edge of the street and the participants transformed a small patch of paved roadway into a basketball court.

Aside from a handful of parents walking with young children and a dog, the basketball game was the only visible sign of activity on a cold, early spring afternoon.

But even the basketball activity would be pooh-poohed the next day by a Nova Scotia government frustrated with a lack of buy-in from residents to recommendations from authorities.

“Over the weekend, I saw and heard of far too many people gathering, blatantly disregarding the social and physical distance rules of staying six feet, or two metres, apart, hundreds gathering on our beaches and in our parks, large groups of people congregating, young people playing street hockey, cars parked everywhere, people disregarding law enforcement,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said at a news briefing in Halifax.

“We are dealing with a deadly virus and this behaviour is unacceptable.”

The premier, who had been reluctant to call for a state of emergency, put one into force March 22. People were banned from congregating in groups of more than five, and as of March 23, the province’s borders were tightened significantly and 14 days of self-isolation was ordered for anyone, with the exception of truckers and health-care workers who had travelled outside the province.

“You walk to exercise, not to socialize,” the premier said. “Stay in your neighbourhood, walk around the block or down the street.”

To enforce social distancing and self-isolation orders, police were given authority to issue summary offence tickets to violators that can result in fines of $1,000 for each offence each day for individuals and $7,500 for each breach by a business. Provincial parks were closed and trespassers warned that their vehicles would be towed.

The source of the premier’s frustration should not be a mystery to Catholics stumbling their way through Lent. The people who populate today’s society want to be in control of everything and fight vigilantly against surrendering even a modicum of authority over what they say and how they conduct themselves.

During Lent and throughout life, Catholics constantly grapple with letting go and letting God. We think we know what is best and how dare God or anyone else tell us what we can and can’t do. Our freedom to do as we please cannot and should not be curtailed.

Popes, present and past, have written and preached extensively about moral relativism and individualism. The secular world attempts to drive home the point that there are no absolute rights and wrongs and that whatever feels right for each individual is the proper moral path for that person to follow.

That is not the Christian way and it’s becoming chillingly clear that it cannot be society’s way if we are going to subdue COVID-19.

Social distancing and isolation seem at odds with what Catholicism stands for and what Church leaders have been preaching for years. Love your neighbour, but love from afar is a challenge.

Still, social distancing provides an opportunity to think of the people in society who are always distanced socially, the old, the lonely, the homeless and the mentally challenged who will remain isolated after the COVID-19 fright subsides. This could be our cue to reach out to those who feel alone.

It also provides churches an opportunity to experiment with new ways to reach out to parishioners.

“The church is not a building, it never was meant to be a building,” one church leader said. “The church is a community, so we’re pretty unimaginative if we can’t think of ways to be a community if we’re not actually in a building.”

At the makeshift basketball court in my neighbourhood, a little girl who was infrequently targeted as a pass receiver by her older playmates waved her hands and yelled, “I’m on everybody’s team.”

She wasn’t trying to articulate a strategy to combat coronavirus but it has become increasingly obvious that the answer lies in having everybody play on the same team.

(Campbell is at reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)

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