The word “Covid” surely evokes a mental reaction now from people everywhere in the world. The illness caused by this particular virus has inflicted suffering and death in almost every country, and continues to do so, albeit with very different trajectories in different places. This virus is also perceived in very different ways by different people – and that is what I want to explore today. What is the psychology of Covid?
I refer to “soul” in this context because the biblical term soul comes close to our concept of living consciousness: of what psychologists study – and also, psyche is Greek for soul. When God breathed into the nostrils of the first man, he became a living soul (Gen 2:7), and it’s as souls that we yearn for things and are distressed by things (the Bible Project gives a memorable overview of the Hebrew word nephesh). And Covid is a phenomenon of conscious suffering in our sensations and emotions, at the animal level of our being, and also, tragically, sometimes a cause of death. You can find harrowing accounts online from medical staff about the sensory and mental trauma that patients in intensive care may go through on their weeks-long journeys to either recovery or death. Covid is said to be “a uniquely terrible way to die”. I’m immensely grateful that neither I nor anyone very close to me has been on one of these journeys, and with the chillingly unpredictable nature of Covid infection, I can easily sense God’s grace to me in this.
I used the word “chillingly” just then (and “terrible” in the previous quote), and such emotive words may come quite naturally in speaking of this pandemic. One motive behind the online publication of medics’ harrowing accounts of the suffering sometimes inflicted by this virus is to persuade more people to take more responsibility for their own and others’ health. In particular, in countries where vaccination is widely available, there is an attempt to persuade reluctant people to be vaccinated. And after appeals to responsibility and public spiritedness have been made, another tactic is to instill fear about the disease. But what should we make of the promotion of fear – by whatever individuals, institutions or sectors?
This issue connects with what Mark wrote recently about Covid, language and information – but here I want to look at the emotional effects of the spread of information of which most is bad news of some sort. I think the first point to make, from a Reformational point of view, is that the life God has given us is more than feelings. Feelings are a foundational part of all animal life, but human life is also social, economic, aesthetic, loving and much more. And it is surely the ultimate direction and vision of our lives that can determine what kinds of pain and hardship are bearable.
Feelings are the archetype of what is subjective, inevitably slipping through the mesh of any attempt to objectify them as something measurable. Language is usually our tool for sharing feelings, but to share a feeling in words requires a certain amount of imagination, and this in turn brings aesthetics and indeed faith into play. Verbalisation of emotions is unfettered by any particular standard of fidelity. What I have in mind is this: someone’s attempt to share what it’s like to suffer with Covid will invite us to imagine feelings, maybe by evoking grotesque scenarios or superlative degrees of pain – in some contexts perhaps with expletive language, a sign of secular grasping for the transcendent. And the listener, in turn, will have to interpret this language with reference to their faith commitments. What could this pain mean? What might one think while subjected to it? Fear is closely linked to faith; as John says, “Perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment” (1 John 4:18). And it’s widely believed that psychosomatic effects represent a close link between attitudes and medical outcomes.
Much more could be said at this point by people better qualified than I. But I believe that faith, whether about our resurrection in Jesus Christ or other forms of religious and secular commitments, somehow mediates between the biology of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the experience of humans who suffer from it. There can be effects in the other direction too, of course. I don’t think it’s correct to speak of “losing faith”, but people’s faith can change (in various directions, including away from Christ towards materialism or humanism) through traumatic experiences. So, to conclude, I wonder what people reading this far think about the following questions:
- What difference can faith in Jesus Christ make in cases of severe affliction by a disease such as Covid?
- What are appropriate ways for Christians to speak about the experience of severe suffering?
- When faith of some kind aids someone’s survival through suffering, how does such suffering affect their faith?
- How far is it right to use fear as an inducement for people to take up vaccination opportunities or other public health measures?
Do share your responses in the comments below!