(RNS) — On Sunday (Sept. 18), President Joe Biden boldly declared “The pandemic is over,” as if the confidence of his tone could bend reality to his will. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” he said. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.”
With this blunt assertion, the president casually swept aside the threat posed by a virus that continues to circulate widely and kill hundreds of our neighbors each day. He also made life significantly more difficult for religious leaders like me.
Clergy and others charged with the support of a faith community are forced to make decisions every day about how to keep our people safe. At many times in recent months, it feels as if public health officials have abandoned us.
It’s not just Biden. The public transportation authority in New York, where I live and work, recently lifted its mandate requiring masks on subways, commuter trains and buses. On Twitter, Gov. Kathy Hochul posted a cheeky graphic depicting people in varying states of masking. “You do you!” the public ordinance suggested next to a depiction of someone with a mask over his nose, mouth agape. “You do you” now appears to be the nation’s official COVID-19 policy.
But “You do you” has never been the gospel. Again and again, Jesus aligned himself with the most vulnerable members of his society: widows, children, the poor, the chronically ill. He makes it clear that the measure of our faithfulness isn’t how we provide for those who are thriving, but how we fiercely love our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable.
Biden’s declaration that “everybody seems to be in pretty good shape” flatly ignores the people who are still suffering or most at risk. It’s certainly not true for the nearly 3,000 Americans who died last week.
With COVID-19 still swirling in our communities, these kinds of public statements make it harder to enforce policies that health experts caution are still crucial. Like many pastors, I’m immediately aware of how many in my congregation are vulnerable to this virus. Elderly parishioners, immunocompromised folks, members fighting cancer — these folks and more need policies that do everything we can to protect them.
That’s why our church is still requiring vaccinations and masks to worship in person. Love demands more than “You do you.”
As in every community, ours includes some who long to lift these requirements and remove their masks. When Biden blithely declares “the pandemic is over,” he makes it that much harder to advocate for what God calls us to do for communal well-being. Without guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city that suggest appropriate caution, organizations like mine must walk this road alone.
These shortsighted proclamations don’t just abandon community leaders. They offer false confidence to our people. For months I’ve heard misinformation like “If you’ve already had COVID you don’t have to worry about getting it again“ or “Masks don’t really do that much to stop the spread” or “COVID isn’t any more dangerous than the flu.”
The internet is rife with “alternative facts,” and when cities repeal mask ordinances on public transport and the president prematurely declares victory, it feeds the lies that deceive people about the seriousness of this threat. While it’s easy to blame people in the pews or on the street for not pursuing better sources for health information, the truth is they have been betrayed by wildly inconsistent public health messaging.
It may not be popular to tell people what they don’t want to hear: that COVID-19 is still killing hundreds of people every day, that millions are suffering from long COVID-19 symptoms and that we run a serious risk of cultivating new viral strains by letting it infect our communities. But the purpose of public health is not popularity. Its purpose is to give people the facts they need to keep themselves and their neighbors safe.
My concerns are not only professional. I suffer from chronic respiratory issues and as a result am particularly vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19. Like many disabled Americans, I find myself wondering where I fit into our government’s vision for the country. When people decide to not get vaccinated and boosted, or to remove their masks, they make it more likely that they will inadvertently spread the virus to someone like me, who can spread it to my family and community. The central lie of “You do you” is that you’re not just making a choice for yourself; you’re also making a choice for me.
I’m pragmatic. I understand that many people would prefer not to mask up. I’m fine with people taking their own risks, going to restaurants, theaters or parties, making choices that feel safe to them. Disabled people can choose not to go to a theater; we can’t decide to recuse ourselves from public life. This is why the decision to remove common-sense health precautions from spaces like buses and trains is particularly egregious.
Celebrating our recent increased freedom should not mean deserting collective solidarity. What we learned in the early days of the pandemic is still true now: We are only as safe as our collective will to prioritize our neighbors’ health above personal convenience. And it is government’s responsibility to implement policies that encourage communal safety.
Announcing that “the pandemic is over” does not make those words true, any more than flying a “Mission Accomplished” banner ended the war in Iraq. The American people deserve better.
(The Rev. Jacqui Lewis is senior minister of Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan and author of “Fierce Love.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)