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Behind the COVID curtain

  • 07 May 2020
COVID-19 has ironically brought new life to well-worn tales from the Bible. You don’t have to be a believer to find resonance in the Easter story of being trapped in a tomb waiting for the stone to be rolled away. Or of Passover: families sheltering in place as a plague of death descends.

But another biblical motif or metaphor may prove more fruitful in the long run: the apocalypse. No, not the end of the world, however appropriate this may feel. It’s the apocalypse but not as we know it.

The word ‘apocalypse’ derives from the Greek apokalupto which means ‘unveiling or ‘revelation’ We see this etymology preserved in the title of the last book of the New Testament, commonly called in English The Revelation of John — or simply Revelation — but in the original Greek is literally The Apocalypse. And while this text describes many events that are well deserving of the term ‘apocalyptic’ in common usage — plagues, extinctions, and other disasters up to and including Armageddon itself — that is not what gives the book its name.

What makes it an apocalypse is its framing as a special insight, an exclusive behind-the-scenes peak, that the narrator John is given into reality — a literal revelation. As John describes it, in an ecstatic, visionary state he is invited into heaven itself. From this perspective, what is happening on earth, no matter how inexplicable or strange, can now be given meaning. John sees what’s really going on.

I’m fascinated by the way some commentators are using this language of apocalypse to describe the societal or global consequences of COVID-19. Expressions like ‘uncover’, ‘laid bare; or the ‘stripping away of layers’ have been deployed by journalists, politicians and economists. As new UK Labour leader Kier Starmer said in his acceptance speech: ‘This virus has revealed the fragility of our society. It’s lifted a curtain… We can see so clearly now…’

The terrible immensity of what this virus has done — and is still doing — should never be glossed over. But perhaps even more significant is what the pandemic has revealed about what was already going on. The UK and USA — two English speaking countries devastated by COVID-19 — are my prime focus here, but many if not most of these points apply to other nations.

'Despite our anxiety, our uncertainly, the unexpected busy-ness of our stay-at-home lives — even in our mourning — we