Behind the COVID curtain

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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.

Illuminated stage (Getty Images/ Nattapong Wongloungud)

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 need to pay attention to what has been revealed by COVID’s lifting of the curtain.'

 

We can see so clearly now such fragility and fracture in the way health care and research sectors are disregarded and underfunded; the marginalisation — to the point of literal expendability — of elderly and disabled people; the cruel links between race, health, life-expectancy and poverty; the disconnect between the money and adulation our ‘celebrities’ receive and what they contribute to society; the prioritisation — in many circles — of the metaphorical health of the economy over actual human health; the emptiness of the xenophobic cant of ‘border protection’, or wall building or Brexit; and, perhaps most importantly, the rarity of humane, wise and decisive leadership.

In seeing these things, and seeking to uncover their causes, we must recognise that we have going along with them until we were forced to look. And when we search for who to blame, we cannot exempt ourselves.

Our challenge is to retain the apocalyptic insights that COVID-19 has granted us at such terrible cost when we return to normal — so that we don’t return to normal. As the curve of new infections mercifully begins to flatten in some countries, certain voices are clamouring that now is the time the loosen lock-down restrictions, re-open businesses and permit larger gatherings.

If we are generous and assume they are not simply trying to sacrifice as many people as possible to their market idols, then perhaps we can see that behind their call to open up society lies a desperation to slam shut the apocalyptic window and pretend we never saw a thing. To gaslight us back into going along with it.

Despite our anxiety, our uncertainly, the unexpected busy-ness of our stay-at-home lives — even in our mourning — we need to pay attention to what has been revealed by COVID’s lifting of the curtain. We must resolve that what has been seen does not become forgotten in our relief but provides our impetus to action.

Just as in John’s apocalypse, not every revelation has been one of horror or devastation. In heaven, John encounters moments of joy and singing, and there have been glimpses of these on earth, too. Literal singing, with concerts on balconies and karaoke on Zoom. The joys of taking a daily walk, spotting bears in windows or sharing videos of how nature is adapting to our unexpected absence. While there is profiteering and panic, there is also the most moving evidence of human decency, self-sacrifice and love.

To me, the most encouraging revelation from our COVID apocalypse is what it has shown about our ability for change, not just at an individual level, but in deep, systemic ways. Neoliberal governments can enact free childcare and widespread welfare reform, new hospitals can be built and functioning within weeks. Even  Christian churches — organisations so change-adverse as to be the butt of jokes — can ditch centuries of tradition in days. Across the world, institutions, practices and ideologies that seemed carved in stone have shown themselves written on the wind. Things were the way they were because we made them that way, or we let them be. And we have seen that we can remake them.

 

'Imagine putting the lowliest, least respected and poorest first — or at least something closer to equality.'

 

Of course, such volatility is dangerously ripe for exploitation. The question of what kind of world we want when we come out of isolation must be addressed now or other people — those who are accustomed to making such decisions — will answer it for us.

So where to begin? What baselines might we agree on? Apocalyptic language is not only found in the book of Revelation but throughout the Gospels. Jesus frequently uses it when he talks about what the coming Kingdom of God will be like, a now hidden, one day to be revealed society of justice and peace.

Jesus uses the same kind of apocalyptic language in the passage that Kier Starmer went on to quote in his speech, just after his reference to COVID-19 as lifting a curtain. ‘We can see so clearly now who the key workers really are,’ said Starmer, listing NHS staff as well as cleaners, carers and others working at the frontline of the epidemic or to simply keep things functioning. ‘For too long,’ he continued, ‘they’ve been taken for granted and poorly paid. They were last and now they should be first.’

Imagine putting the lowliest, least respected and poorest first — or at least something closer to equality. It would mean that nurses were paid as much as football players. That welfare recipients were not treated as bludgers or put through humiliating hoops but were provided with enough to live on with dignity. That we finally stopped making excuses for our racism, whether directed at First Nations peoples or new arrivals. That we accepted, once and for all, that this is such a thing as society and that economic structures exist to benefit humans, not the other way around.

For millions of people, COVID-19 is like hell unleashed on earth. Perhaps by seeing it through apocalyptic eyes, we can change things here to make them just a little bit more like they might be in heaven.

 

 

Sally ClokeDr Sally Cloke is an academic based in Newcastle Australia who writes about theology, philosophy, social justice and aesthetics.

Main image: Illuminated stage (Getty Images/ Nattapong Wongloungud)

Topic tags: Sally Cloke, COVD-19, religion, apocalypse, Christianity

 

 

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Sally, You have really hit the proverbial nail on the head! Scott Morrison talks about "the Other Side" as if things will resume as they were before. (They will not!) The Pandemic has shown up the flaws and inequalities in our society as nothing before it in my 70 years on this earth. The long ques outside Centrelink I witnessed at first hand is something I will never forget. the grave injustice shown to casuals and visa holders, not to mention refugees is a massive blot on our reputation as a tolerant welcoming country.The Neoliberalism of old has been turned on its head. One hopes that ideology is " dead , buried and cremated". While our own Archbishop has spoken frequently of the impact of Corona Virus on the Church tradition of Sunday Mass and parish life being disrupted, and that is good, the social and family life rates a second mention. One hopes that the Bishops Conference will raise its voice as loudly on social issues as it does about Catholic Schools funding. I suspect with the huge unemployment, likely to be with us for years to come, many children attending our schools will have to move to the public system, if fees are not reduced or even waived for the period of social dislocation resulting from this calamity. Certainly we will be living in a "New Normal".
Gavin O'Brien | 07 May 2020


A rarely insightful article. I think the reasons why St John was granted his revelation and why he wrote it down were to be shown himself and to convey to others a deeper perspective on the nature of reality. He was shown that reality is not what we normally think it is. These days everyone has their own two bob 'revelation'. If the truth be told no one can predict what the world will be like after the COVID-19 crisis. St John was not predicting anything in that sense. He was not like Madam Zola and her crystal ball. What he saw was both deeply metaphorical and utterly real. Horrible things did happen in his time, but, from the perspective he was granted this was not 'the End'. Joy, immense joy and deep sorrow were inextricably intertwined, as they are in human life. The Easter Story is one of triumph over what seemed complete and utter defeat. I guess the message to any people of belief is that you have, as much as is possible for you, to do the best you can in your current position.
Edward Fido | 07 May 2020


The last shall be first. An old image assuming its rightful central position. It belongs to the larger scene evoked by the word 'peek' used by an author when writing of those 'resurrection' times that crowned the gospel narratives we have of Jesus' life. I wonder that there has not been more in the way of encouragement for people to conduct their own in-house memorials of The Last Supper, without dismissing altogether the ubiquitous streaming from usually empty and austere churches and cathedrals with just a couple of actors on stage. When we get back to something like normal, such downsizing to a domestic dimension of celebration could well be front and centre in future catechesis, in preparation for the next interruption. Work and ritual could be as close as close with so many working from home.
Noel McMaster | 07 May 2020


This is by far the best I have read on the Covid 19 pandemic -insightful, espousing all that Christianity purports to be, hopeful and expressed poetically. If only such thinking rather than money and self interest drove those we elect to govern. But then, I suppose we get what we vote for and thus deserve. Please nominate for election in Eden -Monaro, Dr Cloak.
john frawley | 08 May 2020


"The last will be first", means there will be no more diversity between all men. All Falsehood, all inequality, being exposed for the Lie it is. It is about God's Goodness being implemented via the choices made by mankind, originally made in His Image. "God became man so that man might become God." (Athanasius of Alexandria) Then: "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
AO | 08 May 2020


“You never want a serious crisis go to waste” said the former Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel. As the world wrestles with the coronavirus crisis, mini-tyrants across the globe are exulting in their newfound dictatorial powers to “lockdown” and are eager to punish anyone who disagrees with them. Shelly Luther, a mother and owner of a hair salon in Dallas, Texas, was sentenced to 7 days jail and fined $7,000 for the crime of daring to open up her salon so that she and her employees could feed their families. She was not “trying to sacrifice as many people as possible to their market idols.” Government-mandated lockdowns have cost millions their jobs, and businesses built up over a lifetime have been destroyed. It’s costing Australia $4 billion per week, and some experts predict high unemployment could cause an extra 750 suicides a year. Many of those criticizing those who want to get back to work are in secure government-guaranteed jobs themselves. You can hear their pious cry: “I thank you God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like the rest of mankind, and particularly that I am not like this neo-liberal capitalist here.”
Ross Howard | 08 May 2020


The so-called devastation from this virus is metaphor. Take any random individual in the democratic West and the view outside his or her window, the literal effect of the virus, will be a panorama of a well-run civil society. This virus is the concept of ‘neutron bomb’. Some people are killed but to leave the infrastructure standing is to give the vast majority who survive the tangible evidence to believe in the future.
roy chen yee | 18 May 2020


How refreshing and relevant to read a reflection on the current pandemic that addresses economic, political and social considerations in a theological context informed by sound scriptural exegesis.
John RD | 19 May 2020


Go easy Ross Howard. I resemble that last remark!
Francis Armstrong | 23 May 2020


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