Stay Home, Stay Engaged

Witness for JusticeI was last in my office on March 13th, not only because the United Church of Christ national office building is closed and all staff are working from home, but also (and more importantly) because I developed a dry cough. Consequently, I began self-isolating, assuming I may have COVID-19. I can’t know this for sure at this point, because testing has lagged so far behind in the U.S. that available tests must be prioritized for those with more serious symptoms.

I imagine I’m not alone in the frustration I feel about the lack of preparedness of our health care system to respond to this pandemic and the stress of feeling helpless, not just about my own situation but the vulnerable place in which we collectively find ourselves.

Having worked in HIV & AIDS response for past 35 years, I also know there are important sources of resilience that will get us through this unprecedented and difficult time.

A key skill for resilience is finding meaning and purpose, which may be found by staying engaged. In this time of physical distancing, think of it this way: stay at home but not on the couch. Stay engaged with your spiritual life, relationships, community, and the work of justice. In 1987, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopted a pronouncement, “Health and Wholeness in the Midst of a Pandemic,” which called on the church to be compassionate, person-centered, supportive of medical science and health care providers, collaborative, and radically inclusive as they embody of the love of Christ in ministries of healing.

Community activism also plays a vital role in community health, especially in the midst of a pandemic. The legacy of community activism in response to the HIV pandemic changed its devastating trajectory and led to more just policies, investments in research, the strengthening of health systems, and the expansion of health services. The COVID-19 pandemic requires a response grounded in justice. Funding, resources and leadership to strengthen our health care systems are needed for the U.S. to follow the course of the most successful strategies: “easy access to testing, rigorous contact tracing, clear and consistent science-based messaging, and a commitment to studiously abide by quarantines while clamping down on socializing no matter how tempting it may be to stray.”

Just as calling HIV or AIDS a “gay disease” has contributed to the stigma that is a barrier to ending the epidemic, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” increases harm against Asian and Pacific Islander communities and perpetuates stigma of transmission and care. Encouraging a human rights approach to COVID-19, UNAIDS reminds us of the lessons learned from the HIV pandemic:

Right now, we are facing an unpredictable and highly dynamic situation as a global community. However, as we have seen from the solidarity, support and power of communities in the HIV epidemic and already in communities responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the response must not be fear and stigma. We need to build a culture of solidarity, trust and kindness. Our response to COVID-19 must be grounded in the realities of people’s lives and focused on eliminating the barriers people face in being able to protect themselves and their communities.

Whether by online meetings, phone calls, emails or other physically distant ways of engaging, it is not only possible but vital to strengthen communities for the sake of justice. Meaning and purpose can be found in community building, and from it will come the essential tools for resilience, healing and recovery.

Michael Schuenemeyer, Team Leader, Health and Wholeness Advocacy Ministries for the United Church of Christ.

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