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Monitor Daily Podcast

March 16, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Amid coronavirus uncertainty, words and gestures that offer balm

Today's issue includes trust in government and greater neighborliness amid the coronavirus crisis, deliberative democracy in the U.K., threats to Nigerian Christians, and the connection between Quidditch and more opportunity for women in Uganda. 

Reassuring gestures offer balm for anxious times. There are the dramatic ones, as when Italian air force planes took to the skies in a roaring call for national unity, streaming the green, white, and red national colors behind them. There are the charming ones, as when Italians offered the globe a moment of joy, serenading each other from their balconies. There are the more modest ones, as when a landlord in South Portland, Maine, canceled his two tenants’ April payments. “We have a system that is interdependent,” Nathan Nichols told WMTW. “Even the smallest acts help in times of trouble.”

And then there are the words that help make sense of a moment. Last week, countless college students had little time to digest events as their campuses abruptly shut down. At Yale University, the news reached a rowing team amid afternoon practice – and coach Andrew Card stepped into action.

There was the offer of one last row the next morning, which was met with deafening cheers; there were videos and photos. And then, important words offering reassurance and perspective. “I reminded them that as they go forward ... they should always take the fork in the road that allows them to take more forks,” Mr. Card wrote to parents. “So now we scatter as circumstances require, but I remain confident that one of those forks will take them all the way back [here]. And just as any good stroke is a rhythmical cycle, so too I hope that everyone ... will share once again their heartfelt comradeship.”

After shaky start, federal and state authorities start to work in tandem

Amid a crisis, trust is paramount. In this story, we look at how much it shapes effective communication and action among local, state, and national government. 

Amelia

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When crisis hits, people often look to government for guidance and answers. In the American federalist system – with power divided among national, state, and local government – the layers can make for confusion and an uneven initial response.

But over time, experts in crisis management say, the United States has a history of getting it right. See the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the financial meltdown of 2008, and, in an earlier era, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

And so it may ultimately be with the global outbreak of the coronavirus. President Donald Trump won praise for his Jan. 31 decision to ban travel to the U.S. from China, but has since faced fierce criticism over his initial downplaying of the threat on American soil.

The American system of government is not designed for efficiency or unilateral decision-making, says Patrick Roberts, author of “Disasters and the American State.” Preparing in advance for disaster is key, at all levels of government, he says. 

“The coronavirus pandemic isn’t totally out of the blue,” says Mr. Roberts. “Planning should be done ahead of time at the level of experts for how government, as well as the private sector and nonprofits, should respond.”

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1. After shaky start, federal and state authorities start to work in tandem

When crisis hits, people often look to government for guidance and answers. In the American federalist system – with power divided among national, state, and local government – the layers can make for confusion and an uneven initial response.

But over time, experts in crisis management say, the United States has a history of getting it right. See the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the financial meltdown of 2008, and, in an earlier era, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 

And so it may ultimately be with the global outbreak of the lethal COVID-19 virus, which originated in China last December. President Donald Trump won praise for his Jan. 31 decision to ban travel to the U.S. from China, but has since faced fierce criticism over his initial downplaying of the threat on American soil, the delayed access to widespread testing, and missteps in communication

With the White House coronavirus task force now holding daily televised briefings, and with testing ramping up, the federal response appears to be getting more on track.

At the same time, many governors, mayors, and other local officials around the country have essentially taken matters into their own hands – closing schools and ordering restaurants, bars, gyms, and other establishments to close. To some, this piecemeal effort reflects the American federalist system at work, allowing local authorities to address local circumstances as they see fit. To others, it reflects a lack of federal leadership amid a viral outbreak that knows no geographic borders. 

“The feds have been asleep at the switch. If we do this on a regional basis, we are going to get through it,’’ New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday, after announcing a series of closures in concert with the governors of neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, meanwhile, declared a lockdown until at least April 6 – the most stringent measure to date in the country.

On Monday morning, Mr. Trump told the nation’s governors in a teleconference that they should work on getting respirators and ventilators on their own, and not wait for the federal government. At a press conference Monday afternoon, the White House issued new guidelines for behavior, including home-schooling children, avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people, avoiding unnecessary travel, and avoiding eating in bars and restaurants. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 13% on Monday, falling nearly 3,000 points in the second worst day in its 124-year history.

To Patrick Roberts, author of the book “Disasters and the American State,” the American system of government is not designed for efficiency or unilateral decision-making. Preparing in advance for disaster is key, at all levels of government, he says. 

“The coronavirus pandemic isn’t totally out of the blue,” says Mr. Roberts, a political scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank. “Planning should be done ahead of time at the level of experts for how government, as well as the private sector and nonprofits, should respond.”

The Trump administration has been slammed for eliminating the National Security Council’s office on pandemic response in 2018. Former national security adviser John Bolton, who was fired last September, defended the decision in a tweet. “Global health remained a top NSC priority,” he wrote, citing the response to the 2018-19 Ebola crisis in Africa. 

Mr. Roberts notes that Americans’ expectations of the president during a crisis have grown since the founding of the republic, as the presidency and executive branch have taken on more power. 

“At the founding, disasters were the responsibility of states and localities,” he says. “In the 20th century, particularly the second half, the president really became a central figure in managing the response to large-scale disasters.”

A key ingredient, experts say, is trust – between citizens and government, and among different levels of government.

“The most important quality [in a response] is credibility,” says Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. 

Partisan tensions haven't gone away, especially in a presidential election year. Earlier this month, President Trump referred to Washington’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, as a “snake” after the governor issued a critical tweet. Seattle is the original coronavirus “hot spot” in the U.S., logging the most deaths so far, though now second to New York in total cases. 

Yet amid the biggest national crisis since 9/11, there has also been praise across the aisle. 

California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, praised Mr. Trump last week for his handling of an outbreak of COVID-19 on a cruise ship that docked in Oakland, California. Specifically, Governor Newsom – who has been strongly critical of Mr. Trump on other occasions – thanked the president for the logistical support that allowed the passengers to disembark and then go into 14-day quarantine. 

“I am working to solve problems,” Governor Newsom told reporters last Thursday. “I’m willing to put aside our differences on a lot of issues to meet this moment.” 

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
A game warden truck and a state trooper guard the gate to a campground at Hard Labor Creek State Park near Rutledge, Georgia, a section of which has been turned into a containment camp for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have no way to self-quarantine, on March 14, 2020.

The view from Georgia

Carey and Hadley Holmes frequently take their two young sons, Waylon and Walker, to a playground at Hard Labor Creek State Park. But since Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp decided to place a quarantine facility there, “needless to say, we’re not going there anymore,” Ms. Holmes deadpans.

With seven trailers in a glade at the back of the 5,800-acre park, the containment camp is a unique and controversial move – managed not by public health officials, but the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Mr. Holmes notes that the arrival of an asymptomatic person last week who had tested positive was the first known case of COVID-19 in the county, adding, “We didn’t have a choice in the matter.” (That individual is now heading home.)

Indeed, as states like Georgia take the lead in responding to the pandemic, the placement of a coronavirus containment camp in a county with no known cases underscores the degree of trust that residents have to maintain in their government’s response.

Outside the entrance to the camp, a state police trooper talks briefly to a photographer and then promptly sanitizes his hands. His demeanor is friendly, but firm.

Small, rural, yet close to both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state government in Atlanta 58 miles away, Rutledge, Georgia, in many ways makes sense.

State officials have tried to be as transparent as possible about the camp, but Governor Kemp acknowledged last week that there has been widespread pushback.

Resident Lakeisha Daniel, taking a walk through the largely deserted town, says she still has questions about the potential impact on residents.

“Right now, it’s more like a wonder, rather than just venting on it,” she says.

The view from Texas

Since early February, Texas has had a front-row seat for federal containment efforts through accepting repatriated Americans from COVID-19 hot spots overseas and placing them into quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

In terms of Texas itself, there have been 68 confirmed cases, and on Friday Republican Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide public health disaster.

According to experts and officials, a relative lack of testing capacity in the nation’s second-largest state means there could be many more positive tests that haven’t been conducted yet.

There are nine laboratories in the state currently able to test 273 specimens per day, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). That testing capacity “is expected to increase here shortly to as much as 500 to 700” specimens per day, added William Ayres, a spokesman for the department, in a March 12 interview.

“With limited testing, you won’t know how many cases are in Texas,” says Rodney E. Rohde, an infectious disease expert at Texas State University. “We haven’t had an explosion in Texas yet, but I have no doubt we’re going to have more cases.”

A chaotic initial response means Texas has been contending with not only a limited testing capacity, but also an uphill public relations battle in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, the CDC released a woman who had been exposed to coronavirus in Wuhan, China, from quarantine at Lackland only to discover on a second retest – after she had visited a San Antonio mall – that she was still “weakly positive” for the virus.

San Antonio and Bexar County declared a public health emergency days later, delaying the release of more evacuees brought from overseas for quarantine at Lackland. The next day, the CDC changed its quarantine release policy so that no one could be released with test results still pending, or without two sequential negative tests within 24 hours.

Indeed, while pandemics are by definition rapidly evolving, and thus guidance from the CDC around testing has to change frequently to keep pace, these frequent changes are what state agencies are working to stay on top of.

Tests from public health labs in the state now no longer are required to go to the CDC for confirmation, Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations at the Texas DSHS, said in an email Monday.

If the federal government approves automating part of the testing process, the public lab testing capacity is expected to rapidly expand, said Mr. Van Deusen. And as more private health lab testing comes online, “that will far exceed the capacity of the public labs.”

Texas received $35 million in federal aid last week, but with testing still limited – and thus confirmed cases hard to pinpoint – local cities and counties have been focused on monitoring potential cases and slowing the virus’s spread with “social distancing” policies.

In Hidalgo County, in the Rio Grande Valley, local officials have been monitoring individuals daily to see if symptoms develop. No tests have been necessary yet, Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer at Hidalgo County Health and Human Services said last week, and state agencies “are attached at the hip to us.”

Unlike most counties in the country, they have also been working closely with border agencies and the Mexican government to monitor cases in Mexico and in camps created for migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

But while Hidalgo County doesn’t yet have to worry about confirmed cases, keeping the public calm is proving a challenge.

“Our hope is to get out ahead of it by constantly communicating where we stand,” says Mr. Olivarez.

Governor Abbott offered cause for optimism Friday, noting that all 90 Americans repatriated to Lackland for quarantine in early February have now returned home.

“This is not a death sentence we’re dealing with here. This is a typical outcome that we expect to see,” he said. “Working together, I know that we can do it.”

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report from Pasadena, California.

Why tough times can mean better neighbors

Does “social distancing” lead to acting distant? Hardly. In this next story, we meet people who are meeting heart to heart even if they can’t meet face to face. 

Amelia
Alessandra Tarantino/AP
Women lean out of windows and clap their hands in the Garbatella neighborhood in Rome, March 14, 2020. Italians are showing signs of solidarity with flash mob calls circulating on social media for people to ''gather'' on their balconies at certain hours, to play music or to give each other a round of applause.

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When Germans began retreating behind closed doors last week, Molly Wilson realized she didn’t know any of the elderly people in her Berlin neighborhood. Ms. Wilson, an American who moved to Germany in 2016, teamed up with an upstairs neighbor to post flyers offering to go shopping on behalf of those who felt unable to go outside.

“My husband and I are both on parental leave, so one of us can absolutely go and get some noodles and beans for somebody who lives a couple streets over,” says Ms. Wilson.

While not everyone is behaving altruistically – witness panic-buying at groceries and hoarding of hand sanitizer – the global crisis has roused a sense of shared humanity that’s compelling people to reach out to their immediate communities. Amid the outbreak of COVID-19, there’s a countervailing surge of kindness among strangers.

“In times of great stress, helping others is a powerful way to reassert control in a moment where many of us feel helpless,” says Jamil Zaki, author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” “Kindness toward others actually can be a great source of healing.”

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2. Why tough times can mean better neighbors

On Saturday morning, residents of a 30-unit cohousing neighborhood in Boston emerged from their apartments for a flash mob. Staying more than 6 feet apart, the neighbors waved to each other and joined together in singing the Beatles song “Let it Be.” One of the residents, a professional cellist, played an accompaniment for a singalong of “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.

“Everyone appreciated the activity, which brought much-needed levity and connection during this otherwise solemn, isolating time,” resident Minda Sanchez says via email.

Similar scenes are playing out in quarantined neighborhoods across the world. In Wuhan, China, whole blocks of apartment buildings chanted, “Keep up the fight.” In Rome and in Siena, Italians on lockdown lean out of windows and balconies with tambourines and accordions to sing songs of solidarity. On Saturday night, cloistered citizens throughout Spain began clapping in unison to cheer health care workers.

As the practice of “social distancing” burgeons, people are finding ways to meet heart to heart even though they can’t meet face to face. They’re leaning on video calling and social networks to meet an innate desire for social connection. But people aren’t just staying in touch with friends and family. If anything, the global crisis has roused a sense of shared humanity that’s compelling people to reach out to their immediate communities. Amid the outbreak of COVID-19, there’s a countervailing surge of kindness among strangers.

“In times of great stress, helping others is a powerful way to reassert control in a moment where many of us feel helpless,” says Jamil Zaki, author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” “Kindness toward others actually can be a great source of healing.” 

One of the most common ways that millions of people are being kind to others right now is by practicing the self-sacrifice of social distancing. For many, the key motivation is that they want to protect others. There are precedents for that impulse, says Jill Suttie, a psychologist at The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. A study demonstrated the most effective way for hospitals to motivate health care professionals to wash their hands isn’t by noting the importance of safeguarding oneself from disease. It’s stressing the impact it has on protecting patients.

To be sure, not everyone is acting altruistically at the moment. Fights have broken out in supermarkets as people wrestle for the last remaining item on a shelf. Some are hoarding hand sanitizer, face masks, and toilet paper. Many individuals ignored widespread pleas to practice social distancing this weekend by gathering at bars, restaurants, clubs, and music venues. In response, governors in several states, including Massachusetts and Ohio, shut down restaurants and bars except for delivery and takeout and canceled all concerts.

Kindness can go viral, too

Even so, instances of selflessness have become increasingly common. In Longmont, Colorado, The Roost restaurant and pub has offered free meals to families whose children would have relied on the closed schools to provide them with lunches. Professional basketball players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Zion Williamson, and Blake Griffin have donated money to cover the salaries of arena workers affected by the suspension of the season. And when Jordana Shmidman’s bat mitzvah was canceled due to the coronavirus, parents volunteered to deliver 150 boxes of the catered food to quarantined families across several boroughs in New York.

Witnessing acts of kindness inspires others to pay it forward, says Mr. Zaki, a psychologist at Stanford University in California. In 2016, he published an article in Scientific American, Kindness Contagion, that included findings of studies about how people “catch” cooperation and generosity from others. This deep-seated desire to help and connect with others intensifies during times of crisis and it crosses lanes of class, race, and other divisions that typically keep people apart.

Case in point: When Germans began retreating behind closed doors last week, Molly Wilson realized she didn’t know any of the elderly people in her Berlin neighborhood. Ms. Wilson, an American who moved to Germany in 2016, teamed up with an upstairs neighbor to post flyers on mailboxes and trash cans on their street. Their notes offered to go shopping on behalf of those who felt unable to go outside.

“My husband and I are both on parental leave, so one of us can absolutely go and get some noodles and beans for somebody who lives a couple streets over,” says Ms. Wilson. She also posted her note on Twitter to inspire others. “We need to do something off-line in order to let old people know that it’s OK to reach out for help.”

When in-person interaction is limited, technology can temporarily mend rips in the social fabric. Good Samaritans are using social media platforms to post offers to help strangers. For example, Jerry Xu, a tech professional in San Francisco, used the app NextDoor to volunteer his services. (Free to join, NextDoor connects members to others in their geographic locale.) “We can help people use apps/websites to get goods; we can help delivery with our vehicles; we can even help with medical emergencies,” Mr. Xu wrote in an email response to the Monitor.

Beyond offering a cup of sugar

To Marc Dunkelman, author of “The Vanishing Neighbor,” these neighborly responses to the coronavirus crisis are notable in their contrast to normal times. Most people’s acquaintances resemble a model like the rings of Saturn, with the innermost bands representing the most intimate connections and each successive loop becoming less intimate. Over the past 50 years, people have invested more time on the innermost ring of friends and family. People have also invested more time in the outermost rings with online acquaintances they don’t know personally but with whom they share common interests such as sports, hobbies, or politics.

People have largely abandoned those rings in the middle, says Mr. Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions. Those are the face-to-face rings of contacts, such as neighbors and once-popular associations such as bowling leagues, Boy Scouts, or Rotary clubs. Yet the coronavirus, striking close to home, offers up the opportunity for greater local connection.

“Could it be that in the context of this crisis, people do break through that initial barrier and say to one another, even though they’re not supposed to be accosting one another or having real intimacy, ‘Hello. You know, I live in apartment 2B. You must live above me’?” says Mr. Dunkelman.

For his part, Mr. Dunkelman maintains a listserv of nearby neighbors and they’re using it to stay in contact and assist each other. Some have gone further. In Massachusetts, Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville (MAMAS) has created a shareable, public Google document to connect those with specific skill sets to those in need. In addition to sharing links to helpful resources during the coronavirus, it organizes neighborhood pods of hyperlocal text message groups or phone trees since not everyone has access to online communication. Other areas have used the document’s guide on how to replicate it. In the U.K., the burgeoning COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK network is up to 87 groups and counting.

The crisis will necessarily alter the way we connect socially during the crisis. What matters most is how we interact with others, says Ms. Suttie of Greater Good, pointing to two major research papers on how emotions are contagious within social circles – including online associations.

“They found that it spreads within three degrees,” says Ms. Suttie, who recommends “trying to calm each other to the extent that we can and not raise panic because that helps all of us to be a bit calmer and to see things more clearly.”

At the Jamaica Plain cohousing neighborhood in Boston, Ms. Sanchez is going to institute more sing-a-longs. On Sunday they reconvened to sing the Bill Withers song “Lovely Day.” On Monday, they sang, “With a Little Help From My Friends” by the Beatles and danced to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”

The activity not only brought community members to their feet to dance in the sun, it brought many to tears.

“Neighbors have already started sharing song requests with me,” she says. “Looks like we’re going to develop a playlist for community in troubled times.”

Editor's note: As a public service, we've removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It's free. 

Navigating uncertainty

The search for global bearings

How to deal with the climate emergency? Ask your neighbor.

The world faces a climate emergency and voters are increasingly disenchanted with their democracies. What if these two dilemmas could be addressed with one initiative? Part 3 of Navigating Uncertainty: The search for global bearings.

Amelia

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The Irish have been doing it for years. When their politicians face a complex problem, they present it to a panel of citizens to hash out and find a common position. It worked for same-sex marriage and abortion; now the British and French governments are running “deliberative democracy” panels to suggest how their countries might confront the climate emergency.

These representative samples of citizens are discussing practical measures to tackle climate change. But the simple fact of their discussion is also helping to deal with a different problem, advocates say – crumbling faith in democracy.

In Ireland, after the financial crash of 2008, deliberative assemblies “were a way to bring angry citizens into the room and save our democracy,” says David Farrell, a politics professor in Dublin.

After taking part in a climate change panel in the English city of Leeds, Fatima Zainab was struck by the group’s dynamics, which contrasted starkly with the vituperative political debates she sees on social media. “When you put people in a room and they are facing each other,” she says, “the human element comes in.”

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3. How to deal with the climate emergency? Ask your neighbor.

When she opened her invitation last August, Fatima Zainab felt excited and a little daunted. The letter informed her that she had been chosen for a Citizens’ Jury that would consider what Leeds should do about climate change. 

Ms. Zainab, who lives with her parents, was about to start her first year at Leeds University. “I don’t know much about climate change. I don’t have any strong opinions,” she recalls thinking. 

She was one of 21 people who served on the Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury that deliberated for nearly 30 hours over nine weeks last fall. That put her at the crux of two key dangers threatening today’s world: global warming and weakening faith in democracy.

Some suggest these dangers can be fought in tandem by convening Athenian-style citizen forums, a process known as deliberative democracy. “Climate is an issue that brings people together,” says Laurie Drake, a Canadian expert on such forums, arguing that climate doesn’t have to be a divisive problem. “Deliberative democracy … offers a different way for trust to be created between the average citizen and government.”

Last March, Leeds municipal council declared a climate emergency. Next, elected officials wanted to know what residents thought should be done to cut carbon emissions in this city of 800,000 in northern England. 

 

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Fatima Zainab took part in a Citizens' Jury on climate change from September through November 2019 in Leeds, England. The UK is experimenting with deliberative forms of democracy that bring together voters in search of solutions to difficult policy questions.

To find out, the council sought an alternative forum for collegial debate. The idea of citizens’ juries or assemblies is to put a representative sample of citizens in a room where they hear a range of opinions as part of a structured debate. Citizens then reason from facts toward a common position. By doing so, say proponents of this method, participants grapple with complex policy dilemmas that have become mired in a polarized political impasse.  

“The name of the game is not to get people to change their minds but to make sure that their view is better informed,” says David Farrell, a politics professor at University College Dublin. 

Angry citizens, acute need

The need for corrective action seems acute now, as voters throw up their hands at corrosive, zero-sum politics. Those who do engage in politics are distrustful of leaders who seem to reflect elite interests rather than respond to ordinary voters’ demands. Those same leaders fret about how to govern in an era of news cycles driven by social media and hyperbolic political tribalism.  

Many countries have experimented with direct democracy; it has proved especially useful in Ireland, where the method helped resolve two deep-seated and contentious issues.

In 2012, politicians and citizens came together for a constitutional convention that recommended legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2017, an Irish Citizens’ Assembly recommended lifting a constitutional ban on abortion. Both proposals were put to public referendums and passed by large majorities.

But Professor Farrell, who lobbied for these experiments, says the goal was much broader than policy change. After the financial crash in 2008-09, many in Ireland had lost faith in its representative political system. Deliberative assemblies were “a way to bring angry citizens into the room and save our democracy,” he says.  

Today angry citizens abound. An exhaustive global study by Cambridge University in January found that voters in nearly all democracies have become increasingly dissatisfied with their political institutions. Since the 1990s, the average share of dissatisfied voters in mature democracies has risen from one-third to one-half, with sharp recent upticks in the United States and the United Kingdom.  

SOURCE: 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

But climate is an issue that energizes voters, particularly younger voters, who have rallied to demand that politicians act. 

Could the climate emergency, a global challenge that defies borders, become a galvanizing cause that, over time, helps to bind a fractured democracy like the U.K.? And could deliberative assemblies that channel public voices into decision-making provide a catalyst for change? 

“A lot of countries and cities and communities are choosing to go down this (citizens’ assembly) route,” says Lorraine Whitmarsh, a professor of environmental psychology who directs the UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University. 

“It’s a contentious issue and this is an ideal type of issue where you want that kind of debate. You need to break down the kind of polarization that is starting to emerge.” 

 

Fabio De Paola/PA/AP
Members of the citizens' assembly on climate change met on Jan. 25, 2020, on their first weekend of discussions in Birmingham, England. More than 100 members of the public took part in discussions over the next four weekends as part of the Climate Assembly UK.

Ask the people

One demand of Extinction Rebellion, the civil disobedience group formed in the U.K. in 2018, was that the British government should hold a national citizens’ assembly on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

That demand is now a reality: Climate Assembly UK held its first meeting in late January. The 110-member body, culled from a U.K.-wide invitation list of 30,000, was due to make its recommendations in April on how the government can meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050. That deadline will now be missed, however, due to the coronavirus pandemic that forced organizers to postpone the last meeting in March. 

The U.K. approach echoes a similar undertaking in France. Its Citizens’ Convention on the Climate, which has 150 members, launched last year; President Emmanuel Macron has promised that its proposals will be put directly to the government or to a national referendum. Spain may be next after its coalition government declared a climate emergency on Jan. 21 and said it also wanted to hold a citizens’ assembly.  

 

Yoan Valat/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron attends the Citizens' Convention for Climate at the French Economic, Social, and Environmental Council in Paris, France, Jan. 10, 2020.

“Politicians focus on the issues that voters are concerned about, and our voters are increasingly concerned about climate change,” says Rachel Reeves, a member of Parliament who chairs the House of Commons select committee on business, energy, and industrial strategy, which cosponsored the U.K. assembly.  

“It’s about bringing people together to try and find out what changes people are willing to make, individually and collectively as a country, to meet our ambitious (climate) targets,” she says. 

This surge of interest in deliberative bodies doesn’t surprise Peter Bryant of Shared Future CIC, a nonprofit, who helped run the Leeds Climate Change Citizens’ Jury and who is now working with authorities in nearby Lancaster on another climate jury. 

Mr. Bryant has organized 35 juries across the U.K. on local issues ranging from natural gas fracking to alcohol licensing to hate crimes. He sees them as a way to strengthen democracy at a time when trust in politicians is fraying.

“People are just put off by party politics and the system that we have. But they’re really interested in being involved in decision-making around issues that affect them and their communities,” he says. 

In Britain, faith in democracy is at a nadir after the long Brexit stalemate. In an annual survey, published last April by the independent research group Hansard Society, nearly half of respondents said they felt that they had no influence over national policy. That was the highest level since the survey began in 2004. 

Members of the new national Climate Assembly may have such influence, but they may not. When the assembly opened in Birmingham the filmmaker and environmentalist David Attenborough thanked them for “deliberating carefully on behalf of all of us.” But he also warned that it may prove hard to make MPs – who serve five-year terms – focus on climate change. 

"It is very difficult to persuade politicians that they should give money and time and attention and worry about an issue which is not going to come to a climax – and people won't know if it is successful or not successful – for 10 years hence, 15 years hence," Mr. Attenborough said.

Bridge that gap!

This tension is intrinsic to climate policymaking and has led some analysts to question whether democracies are up to the task. Are voters ready to elect politicians who promise not more but less – less flying, less driving, less red meat – as necessary sacrifices, even if they may not live to see the rewards?

“The climate crisis is an issue that requires long-term thinking across the generations, yet electoral politics is geared toward responding to immediate grievances,” wrote David Runciman, a politics and history professor at Cambridge University, in Foreign Policy last year. 

Citizens’ assemblies could bridge that gap, Professor Runciman suggested. But only if politicians are bound by their proposals so that their deliberations actually matter. 

Ms. Reeves, the MP, says the climate assembly will help inform Parliament’s decisions, in particular by signaling what trade-offs voters are ready to make so as to reduce emissions. “We need to be confident that we are taking people with us, and that we’re hearing what they’ve got to say,” she says. 

That has not always happened. In 2018, Parliament all but ignored recommendations made by a citizens’ assembly on senior care that it had set up. Even in Ireland, which is frequently held up as an exemplar of deliberative democracy, lawmakers did little to put a citizens’ assembly’s proposals on climate change into effect.

 

Simon Montlake/The Christian Science Monitor
Maxine Wood, an office administrator, was struck by the 'human element' that emerged in a Citizens' Jury in Leeds, England, in which she participated for three months in the fall of 2019.

The cooperative Dutch

Citizens’ assemblies aren’t the only route to muster political will on climate. The Netherlands has drawn up an ambitious carbon reduction plan after a year-long consultation known as a polder, which brought together industry, consumers, and politicians to create a consensual framework. 

The model is uniquely Dutch, a legacy of centuries of cooperation to maintain dikes and canals. “We had to cooperate because the water made no difference between citizens,” says Ed Nijpels, a former lawmaker who led the climate negotiations.

The climate polder hit speed bumps, however, when its initial report was criticized for burdening households with the cost of a clean-energy transition. “The moment these proposals began touching people’s cars and houses they got scared,” says Louise van Schaik, head of sustainability and climate change at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. 

This political backlash was quelled by proposals to shift more of the financial burden of the transition onto industry. Last summer, the Netherlands’ four-party coalition government approved an accord aimed at cutting emissions by 49% in 2030 from 1990 levels. 

Mr. Nijpels says that normal party politics would likely have scuppered a deal. “To be honest, I don’t think they could’ve done this without [the polder process]. It was the only way to get to this target of 49%,” he says. 

Swapping stories, making recommendations

In Leeds, Ms. Zainab and her fellow jurors found plenty of common ground at their weekly meetings, held in the open-plan offices of an engineering company. They swapped stories of their lives and their interests, and friendships blossomed on the sidelines. 

Each session lasted three hours. Experts vetted by an independent panel briefed the jury and answered their questions. 

One member didn’t believe there was a climate emergency, but saw the health benefit of policies to cut road congestion and air pollution. (Proponents say it’s important not to exclude skeptics from these bodies; at Climate Assembly UK, 19 of the 110 participants identified themselves as “not at all” or “not very” concerned about climate change.) 

Ms. Zainab was among the youngest jurors, and she deferred at first to older members. “They had louder voices,” she says. By the end, though, she was all-in, and was chosen as the first speaker for the public launch of the jury’s final recommendations, which ranged from better bus services to more generous subsidies for home insulation and more government help for green startups.

SOURCE: Pew Research Center
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

One item had unanimous support: The city should take over privately-run bus routes and expand them, a move that – along with congestion charges and bike lanes – would help make private cars “a last resort for transportation.” 

That resonates with panel member Maxine Wood, an office administrator who bought her first car after having a baby. “The reason people drive is convenience. There aren’t enough buses,” she says.  

Like Ms. Zainab, she was struck by the jury’s group dynamics, which contrasted starkly with the vituperative political debates she sees on social media. “When you put people in a room and they’re facing each other, the human element comes in,” she says.  

An airport protest changes a diet

One issue highlighted the tradeoffs implicit in climate decisions and the messy nature of real-life politics: the planned expansion of Leeds Bradford Airport from 4 million to 7 million annual passenger capacity, and consequent rise in carbon emissions.

Many of the jurors used the airport, and discussion was heated. But in the end they voted nearly unanimously to oppose the expansion. This was largely symbolic, since the airport is private and already had planning permission to expand, so jurors also called on the municipal council to block a planned highway to the new terminal. 

In December the council did so, deciding on a rail link instead. But Daniel Corner, a university student on the jury, felt let down by the compromise. “Trains aren’t as bad as cars, but it’s still putting people on planes that are churning out pollution,” he says. 

Still, he hopes that deliberative bodies like the one he served on offer a way forward. 

“If you get people from both sides of the political spectrum and put them in a room together and teach them on a subject ... we are all able to reach a compromise,” he says. 

Asked about his own behavior, he pulls out a handwritten groceries list. “I’m doing my shopping after this,” he says. He used to eat meat daily. Now the only animal protein on the list is cod fillets. 

Third in our Navigating Uncertainty series.

SOURCE: 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Nigerian Christian community faces peril, White House is told

Could the Trump administration’s interest in religious freedom issues outweigh what appears to be its waning interest in Africa? Nigerian Christians and their American allies are hopeful.

Amelia
Nyancho NwaNri/Reuters
Women pray on Ash Wednesday inside the Church of the Assumption in Ikoyi district in Lagos, Nigeria, February 26, 2020.

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Nigerian Christians and their advocates in the United States are warning against what they say is a spreading and intensifying war on Christians in Nigeria. The International Committee on Nigeria (ICON) and other religious freedom and human rights organizations are hoping to raise U.S. and global awareness about Nigeria in the same way the “Save Darfur” campaign successfully focused attention on Sudan’s ethnic cleansing in Darfur.

“The violence against Nigeria’s Christians is increasing and it is intensifying,” says Stephen Enada, a Nigerian Baptist minister and co-founder of ICON. “Unless this destabilizing violence is addressed by the international community, it will have grave consequences for Nigeria, for Africa, and for the world.”

The new campaign earned Mr. Enada and an entourage of high-profile U.S. religious freedom advocates a few minutes with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian.

The U.S., however, is showing signs of losing interest in Africa, with the Trump administration mulling a drawdown of counterterrorism forces there in favor of beefing up forces in Asia. But the advocates for Nigeria’s Christians say they hope the Trump administration’s interest in religious freedom issues and the high placement of evangelical Christians, including Vice President Mike Pence, will lead to action on Nigeria’s struggle with extremism.

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4. Nigerian Christian community faces peril, White House is told

When Boko Haram beheaded a pastor in northern Nigeria this year over his Christian faith, the West African terrorist group made sure to post a grisly video of the execution to sow fear and to trumpet its war on Christianity.

Westerners were shocked by similar execution videos – featuring the beheadings of “infidels” ranging from Western journalists to Christians and Shiite Muslims – posted by the Islamic State as it rose up over a half-decade ago. But the horrifying tactics employed by Islamist terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have faded recently from the headlines.

Yet Nigerian Christians and their advocates in the United States, including religious freedom organizations and members of Congress, say Boko Haram’s beheading of Pastor Lawan Andimi in January was just one terrible moment in a spreading and intensifying war on Christians in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa.

“The violence against Nigeria’s Christians is increasing and it is intensifying. The forces behind this horrific violence are uniting to raise the flag of the caliphate as they kill, sack villages, and burn churches,” says Stephen Enada, a Nigerian Baptist minister who is also a co-founder of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON).

“Every day it is mothers and babies, farmers and pastors, who are losing their lives and being displaced, and mostly it goes unnoticed by the world,” he adds. But “unless this destabilizing violence is addressed by the international community, it will have grave consequences for Nigeria, for Africa, and for the world.”

In an effort to rouse the world to attention, Mr. Enada’s ICON joined with other religious-freedom and human rights organizations last week to launch a “SilentSlaughterNigeria” campaign focused on Nigeria’s besieged Christians.

Avoiding a genocide

The new campaign – which earned Mr. Enada and an entourage of high-profile U.S. religious-freedom advocates a few minutes Wednesday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian – has both a policy objective it aims to reach and hopes of helping the world avoid another stain on the global conscience.

One point to the “Silent Slaughter” campaign is to raise U.S. and global awareness about Nigeria in the same way the “Save Darfur” campaign successfully focused world attention on Sudan’s ethnic-cleansing and war on the non-Arab population (including Christians) in Darfur. That conflict would ultimately be declared a genocide.

Some human rights and religious freedom organizations are ready to declare the killings in Nigeria a genocide. Over the last five years an estimated 7,000 Nigerian Christians have been murdered in a country where just under half of the population of 200 million is Christian.

Christians are not the only or even the primary victims of the Islamist extremists’ war in northeast Nigeria. Over the decade that Boko Haram has terrorized the region, more than 50,000 Nigerians, mostly Muslims refusing the terror group’s version of their faith, have been murdered, with more than 2 million displaced. Still, as in the case of Darfur, it is primarily the killings of Christians that is raising alarms in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Nigeria's Minister of Foreign Affairs Geoffrey Onyeama, left, shakes hands with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, at the State Department in Washington.

Experts say the pace of killings of Christians has increased, with more than 350 dying in violence so far this year – primarily in the country’s northeast. There Boko Haram, a nascent branch of ISIS, and indigenous Fulani militants are uniting in their common cause of ridding Nigeria’s north and “Middle Belt” of “infidel” Christians.

What Mr. Enada and other advocates of Nigeria’s Christians say they want to help the world avoid is another genocide on the order of what occurred with little global response in Rwanda in 1994. Over a period of just 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered at the hands of the country’s majority Hutus.

Bill Clinton says failing to stop the Rwanda genocide remains the biggest regret of his presidency.

Waning U.S. interest in Africa?

Still, even some experts who acknowledge an uptick in recent attacks on Christians caution that the violence in northeast Nigeria should not be seen as uniquely focused on Christians or as a monolithic campaign to cleanse the region of its Christian population.

“My impression is that everything the Christians are facing is happening in a context of a lot of violence that is not particularly targeted at Christians,” says Emily Estelle, research manager at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.

“Christians are certainly not the sole focus of [these groups] operating in West Africa,” she adds, “but they can get caught up in the efforts of one group to differentiate itself from another.” She notes, for example, that for a time ISIS West Africa sought to differentiate itself from Boko Haram, which was primarily targeting Muslim communities that refused its ideology, by “targeting Christian populations rather than Muslim populations.”

The “SilentSlaughter” campaign might seem to face difficult odds, as it comes at a moment of rising global fatigue over humanitarian crises ranging from Syria’s horrific civil war to worldwide refugee numbers not seen since World War II.

Moreover, the U.S. shows signs of losing interest in Africa, with the Trump administration mulling a drawdown of the counterterrorism forces it maintains in Africa in favor of beefing up forces in Asia as part of the administration’s strategy for confronting China in the Indo-Pacific region.

On the other hand, advocates for Nigeria’s Christians say they hope to tap into the Trump administration’s interest in religious-freedom issues and the high placement in the administration of a number of evangelical Christians – from Secretary Pompeo to Vice President Mike Pence – to get action on Nigeria’s struggle with extremism.

“We have in the administration of President Donald Trump an administration that is unparalleled in its commitment to religious freedom,” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based fundamentalist policy advocacy group.

“I’m encouraged to see the Trump administration has designated Nigeria a country of particular concern,” he adds. But he lists the accelerating violence, the weekly torching of churches, and the rising displacement of Christian families, and says more must be done.

“This crisis has the potential to affect the entire African continent and Europe,” particularly if the flow of refugees out of Nigeria accelerates, Mr. Perkins says. “We don’t want to look back a decade from now and regret that we allowed another Rwanda.”

“Message to the world”

One thing advocates for Nigeria’s Christians are pushing for is designation of a White House special envoy to focus on the issue – someone whose job it would be to press the Nigerian government for a coordinated effort to stem the violence and to drum up international support for action.

“I look back at when President [George W.] Bush appointed John Danforth his special envoy [for Sudan], he did it from the Rose Garden with Secretary [of State Colin] Powell at his side,” says Frank Wolf, a former member of Congress from Virginia who focused on religious freedom and human rights issues over his time in office.

“That sent a message to the world” about the priority the American president put on the issue, adds Mr. Wolf, who remains active in human rights issues in retirement. “Right now the world is relatively silent on this crisis, but I think a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region would do a lot to put it on the world’s agenda.”

ICON’s president Mr. Enada says Americans who might remember the black flag of the ISIS caliphate rising over parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 should know that already that same flag flies over more than a dozen municipalities in northeast Nigeria.

“That flag represents terrible things for the Christians who used to live there,” he says. “But it should also be a warning to people outside of Nigeria who could be affected by these groups establishing a base from which they operate.”

Difference-maker

Drivers of change

Quidditch equality: In Uganda, wizards and witches both get to play

Who knew that running around a field with a broomstick between your legs – as you do when playing the “Harry Potter” game – could give some Ugandan women a new chance to shine as equals?

Amelia
Katumba Badru
Uganda's Quidditch team, founded by John Ssentamu, has been invited to three World Cups abroad but has not yet been able to attend.

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When John Ssentamu first showed his students a video of a real-life Quidditch game, it wasn’t the broomsticks that surprised them most. The children, the girls especially, were most shocked to see boys and girls playing together on the same field.

The children were stunned. “They were like, ‘Is it possible? Can girls play on the same pitch with boys?’” Mr. Ssentamu recalls with a laugh. 

As a teacher in rural Uganda, Mr. Ssentamu had seen how many parents thought sending their daughters to school was a waste of time. In some people’s eyes, women just weren’t seen as equal. But he wondered if Quidditch, the sport of “Harry Potter” fame, could change that.  

Today, Mr. Ssentamu has helped found several teams, and his players have even been invited to the International Quidditch World Cup, though visa problems prevented the trips. But most important, perhaps, is the shift in views.

“I told them that this is the right time to change people’s mindset: We are not going to look at football for girls, football for boys. We are now going to have Quidditch for all.” 

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5. Quidditch equality: In Uganda, wizards and witches both get to play

In John Ssentamu’s village in Uganda, there is no Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, no Gryffindor House, and certainly no Harry Potter. But here in Busubi, a richly green village of just over 1,000 people, there is the wizard game of Quidditch. 

It started in 2013, on a bus snaking through the narrow roads from Masaka, a city west of Lake Victoria, to Uganda’s capital, Kampala. Mr. Ssentamu, a teacher, found his seat partner holding a copy of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and asked to read it. 

What held his interest was not the tongue-twisting spells, or the mystique of “the boy who lived.” It was the fictional game of Quidditch, played on flying broomsticks – and the fact that it was a co-ed sport.

A teacher at the time, Mr. Ssentamu had seen firsthand how many parents thought sending their daughters to school was a waste of time – they’d only end up pregnant or married, they said. He himself had been taught by women, at a time when their education wasn’t encouraged. 

In some people’s eyes, women just weren’t seen as equal. But he wondered if Quidditch could change that.

Katumba Badru
John Ssentamu, a former teacher who started Quidditch teams at his school to teach children about gender equality, poses inside his office in Busubi, Uganda.

When Mr. Ssentamu returned to his village, he gathered a few students to watch videos online. Quidditch, it turned out, had leapt from the page to become a real-life sport – but nowhere in Africa yet.

He remembers the children were stunned by the game, but mostly the girls, who had never seen men and women compete together.

“They were like, ‘Is it possible? Can girls play on the same pitch with boys?’” Mr. Ssentamu says, remembering their initial reluctance with a laugh that is almost a cackle. 

“I told them that this is the right time to change people’s mindset: We are not going to look at football for girls, football for boys. We are now going to have Quidditch for all.” 

Equal treatment

In Uganda, women and girls continue to face gender-based discrimination and violence. Only one-third of women own land, for example, and one in four report that their first sexual encounter was against their will. About four in five female secondary-school students say they have experienced sexual abuse, according to a government study supported by UNICEF.

“It is our own making that the man is bigger than the woman,” Mr. Ssentamu says, sitting at the vocational center in Busubi he now leads. “When it comes to Quidditch, we do the same training. If we are going to run five rounds, they must be five rounds whether you are a she or a he.”

In J.K. Rowling’s books, two teams of seven players face off on a field with three scoring hoops and four balls: two bludgers, a quaffle, and most importantly, the winged, golden snitch. Darting about on flying broomsticks, players try to get quaffles through the hoops, and bludgeon each other with bludgers, as the seekers madly try to catch the bird-like snitch.

Katumba Badru
The Ugandan Quidditch team follows rules set by the International Quidditch Association. There are no broomsticks; the team makes do with sticks gathered around the village.

In real life, of course, the rules are slightly different – particularly the lack of flying brooms. (Instead, the team runs with sticks between their legs.) But that hasn’t hampered interest.

Goreth Nakkazi only came to know about the sport from the buzz going around the village. After watching a few student games, Ms. Nakkazi knew she wanted to more than watch Quidditch. She wanted to play it.

“I had never seen both sexes play on the same ground, and that system of playing with a broomstick between your legs was my wonder,” she says.

But it was not just a surprise. It was a confirmation of her beliefs about equality.

As a child, she and her sisters felt sidelined, while their brothers were placed at the front line. Then, shortly after she married her husband, other men pressured him to marry again.

“They told him a man has to be with two or more women because [women] are weak and of simple reasoning and so, when you have many, you join their heads and it becomes one of a man,” she says. “It was very hurtful to me,” she adds. “I always sit and argue with the men and tell them it is not like that.”

But she didn’t stop at telling them. She liked to show them – part of why Quidditch piqued her interest.

At the time, the sport was only open to students. But as interest increased, Mr. Ssentamu announced that he wanted to create an adult team.

Ms. Nakkazi has been playing for two years now. “In Quidditch, we are treated the same, there is no taking of girls as inferior,” she says.

And her husband? “I proved to him that I am even more than some men, so now he is on my side, he backs me in whatever I do,” she says. Today, they have three children. “If he has to remain with the baby while I go for training, he does it.”

Godfrey Yiga, who started playing Quidditch while he was a young teacher, notes its importance in changing his views of gender, too. A few years ago, his teenage sister was preparing for important exams when she became pregnant. Their parents decided she should get married after giving birth, rather than going back to school. But after a grueling two years, he convinced them – and she is preparing once again for her exams.

Sitting on a bench just meters from the Quidditch field, Mr. Yiga stares intensely at the rain falling in silvery slants.

Equality means “[not] saying that ‘men have to do this and women have to do this,’” he says.

A wizard game in a non-wizard world

Under Mr. Ssentamu’s leadership, Quidditch has spread to three other locations in the country, where it is played by around 200 players, students and teachers alike.

The teams follow rules set by the International Quidditch Association. The golden snitch, for example, is not a ball but an actual person who hides before the game begins, anywhere in the community. 

Katumba Badru
The team has no official equipment. When they first began, their hoops were holes dug in the ground.

What if the snitch willingly wants to be caught by a certain side? Mr. Ssentamu laughs at the possibility. “Of course you can’t rule that out,” he says. “The neutrality has to come from the heart.”

But bigger challenges besides neutrality remain. The team has no official equipment. Their hoops when they first began were holes dug in the ground, till they started to manufacture some locally.

Twice, the team has been invited to the International Quidditch World Cup abroad, but Mr. Ssentamu says they have been denied visas. This year, they have again been invited, this time to the United States, and Mr. Ssentamu is working with an immigration lawyer.

He draws strength from the impact Quidditch has had on the community: Harry Potter books stocked across the region’s libraries; spectators who have come to see them play; and a new primary school, set up with help from Quidditch visitors. Mr. Ssentamu’s biggest win, though, might be shifting views of equality – including his own.

“Equality to me means that we are all human beings,” he says. “We must accept that we are all human beings without asking any other question.”

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Tending to those most vulnerable and alone

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As the coronavirus scrambles the normal ties of community, the best response has been a focus on older people, especially those living alone or in care facilities. The call for social distancing has triggered a wave of empathy to socially engage older people and lift their morale.

During this crisis, isolation may be the greater concern of older people. Only 47% of U.S. adults over the age of 60 worry about dying from the coronavirus, according to The Harris Poll, compared with 57% of millennials.

Especially hard for many seniors is not being able to attend religious gatherings. Yet clergy and the faithful are inventing ways to meet the spiritual desires of the oldest people who have long sat in the pews. For most religions, giving to those most vulnerable is a divine calling, a reflection of God’s infinite love.

The virus crisis is forcing people to readjust their physical ties to one another, especially with at-risk seniors. Yet the bonds of affection in a community or a family are still there. They just need new and careful forms of expression, the kinds that both protect and prop up the weakest during a pandemic.

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Tending to those most vulnerable and alone

As the coronavirus scrambles the normal ties of community, the best response has been a focus on those most vulnerable. In California, homeless people are a high priority. For low-income Americans, Medicaid is easing the flow of money. Almost everywhere, school closings are safeguarding children from exposure. Yet the greatest concern is for older people, especially those living alone or in care facilities.

Perhaps the most radical show of concern for seniors is Britain’s plan to ask people over the age of 70 to stay at home for four months. “No bingo, no pubs ... BUT family visits and neighbours etc.,” tweeted the United Kingdom health secretary, Matt Hancock. More typical is Florida’s ban on certain people from visiting nursing homes and other elder-care centers.

Such social distancing has triggered a wave of empathy to socially engage older people and lift their morale. The obvious tools are digital videoing, such as with FaceTime, Duo, or Skype, all a step up from phone calls. Yet sending handwritten letters – with photos – might be better for many seniors and more memorable. Just as compassionate are offers to deliver essentials to the door, such as personal care items, or favorite foods and flowers. In many places, people are organizing to aid seniors through hashtags like #HowCanIHelp.

During this crisis, isolation may be the greatest concern of older people. Only 47% of U.S. adults over the age of 60 worry about dying from the coronavirus, according to The Harris Poll, compared with 57% of millennials.

One marker of a civilization is the humility and sacrifice expressed during times of mass illness in support of older generations. In the United States, where more than a quarter of those 60 and older live alone, the challenge is greater than in most other countries. Family and friends must find creative ways to prevent mental isolation of loved ones. They need to weave new threads of contact into a senior’s social fabric.

Especially hard for many seniors is not being able to attend religious gatherings. Yet clergy and the faithful are inventing ways to meet the spiritual desires of the oldest people who have long sat in the pews. For most religions, giving to those most vulnerable is a divine calling, a reflection of God’s infinite love.

The virus crisis is forcing people to readjust their physical ties to one another, especially with at-risk seniors. Yet the bonds of affection in a community or a family are still there. They just need new and careful forms of expression, the kind that both protect and prop up the weakest during a pandemic.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

God cares for us past measure

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Faced with the prospect of falling behind on her bills, a woman found comfort in the promise of God’s limitless care for all. This lifted her fear, and tangible evidence of that care soon emerged in an unexpected way.

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1. God cares for us past measure

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Those were some demanding years financially, but I had always been able, through careful budgeting, to pay the full balance of our credit-card bill each month. I was concerned that if I ever got behind, I would never be able to catch up.

But then one month, there was an unexpected drop in my self-employment income, and I had some unavoidable extra expenses. The best I could do was pay the minimum amount and pray.

Pray, you ask? Well, I’ve found through my study of Christian Science that turning to God in prayer whenever I have a need of any kind helps lift me out of human reasoning about pros and cons based on a limited, material context. It expands my sense of the spiritual and sole context for existence: God, the one infinite Mind, illimitable Spirit. As I accept even a little more the idea of God as the infinite creator and sustainer of all of us, it pulls back the limitations of the problem I am having and I see the infinite possibilities of God more clearly.

But on this particular occasion, pray as I might, I just couldn’t get past the fear of being substantially in the red with no foreseeable way to get back in the black. So, I did what I’ve found helpful when I feel helpless and need to feel the promise of care from my loving Father-Mother, God: I opened my “Christian Science Hymnal” for reassurance.

I just opened it at random, and this is what I read:

Trust all to God, the Father,
Confide thou in none other,
He is thy sole defense;
He cares for thee past measure,
Seek Him who has thy treasure,
Thy helper is omnipotence.
(Paul Gerhardt, No. 361, © CSBD)

As I read those words, I imagined a balance sheet that an accountant might use, with credits and liabilities in red and black ink. And then suddenly I saw that past the edges of that ledger and my resources and the credit-card company and the banks and all the money in the world, there was God – sustaining all and being All, and expressing His limitless goodness in all of us, His spiritual ideas, or offspring.

I realized that all our family needed was in perfect balance, “paid in full,” because God is infinite and infinity cannot be more or less than infinite.

This must have been crystal clear to Christ Jesus when he fed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes (see Matthew 14:14-21). The goods and services we receive in our daily lives are just hints of the underlying spiritual ideas that meet our needs. It’s like the way numbers represent ideas. Numbers are used every day by billions of people, yet they are never personally owned, never wear out, and never get used up. The idea-ness of them remains above and beyond the figures written on a piece of paper. We are free to draw upon these ideas, but cannot own or deplete or lose them.

This is true of the love and care God bestows on each of us, too. The textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, explains, “Allness is the measure of the infinite, and nothing less can express God” (p. 336). And we have a God-given ability to feel and experience God’s allness in tangible ways.

As I prayed with these ideas a line from the hymn came singing its way back into my heart: “He cares for thee past measure.” Of course God cares for us past measure! All human measurements are limited, but the only measure or amount God has and is, is allness.

In those 15 minutes of prayer, all fear left me. The next month, when it was time to pay the bills, I found that an unusually busy month in my business had brought in more than enough income to pay the entire credit-card bill, including the balance and interest from the previous month. And I took that lesson of God’s measureless care for us to heart in more ways than finances. It applies to our health, our strength, our joy, our harmony, our peace. Divine allness is always enough!

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A breath of fresh air

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Cyclists ride along an oceanfront trail along the Venice Beach Boardwalk March 15, 2020, in Los Angeles.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for starting your week with us. Tomorrow, we'll join Moscow-based correspondent Fred Weir as he revisits the rugged Caucasus to see how the region has emerged from an era of tumult and revived local cultures.

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