David Robertson - lockdown

Lockdown Listening: David Robertson on a Christian Response to Covid

27 July 2021

5.6 MINS

If you’re among the half of Australians currently under lockdown, you may be looking for some uplifting and thoughtful commentary on the situation we face. If so, check out this excellent episode of the ABC Radio show ‘God Forbid’.

Hosted by James Carleton, the episode aired last Sunday and featured experienced Christian commentator and debater David Robertson. David is a former moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and is currently working with churches in Sydney. He hosts The Wee Flea and also contributes regularly to the Daily Declaration.

The other panellists were deputy editor of health and medicine at The Conversation Phoebe Roth, and Mobinah Ahmad, who is the managing editor of the Australian Muslim Times, and who also works with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The panel discussed a range of Covid-related topics, including Australia’s vaccine rollout, the government’s vaccine ad campaign, and also how nations like the UK are tracking with the virus. Also discussed was Sydney’s extended lockdown and how it is impacting multicultural, lower-income communities.

The hour-long discussion was extremely well-hosted, the conversations were amicable, and the contributions of all panelists were constructive and insightful. David Robertson’s commentary will be of particular interest to Christians trying to make sense of the situation.

How Border Closures Have Impacted David Personally

Knowing his story, host James Carleton began by asking David how the border closures have impacted him personally. David explained:

I came to Australia two years ago. I had a condition of my contract that I would go back home every year because my parents weren’t well. I’ve not been able to get back at all, and in that time, my daughter has gotten married, a granddaughter has been born, but my father died and his funeral was yesterday actually. And I was not able to attend…

Not being physically present with your mother beside your dad’s grave is something that for me is a very profound thing… My experience is reflected with many, many other people. I think one of the great cruelties of this has been people who are not able to hold the hand of their loved ones as they were dying, and I do wonder a little bit if we’ve become more obsessed about numbers and figures than we have about individual human beings.

On Spiritual Solitude During Covid Lockdowns

Asked about how he and other Christians have found the additional time available for spiritual solitude during extended lockdowns, David responded,

Well it can be [a blessing] in terms of prayer… [but] I think one of the worst things about Covid has been not being able sometimes to gather in public worship. And I’m not a big fan of ‘Zoom church’. I know lots of churches are thinking this is the future. I hope it isn’t. To me it’s like… ‘Zoom dating’ or something… I still prefer the real thing, and meeting with people.

But also… I’ve been amazed at how many times in the Bible plagues are mentioned, and yet we hadn’t noticed them. I have a friend who writes Christian songs, and he was going through the Psalms. And he was doing Psalm 91, which is very special to me and he knew that. So he phoned me up and he told me that his publisher had said he liked the song — this was two years ago — but could he remove the bit about the plagues not smiting you because that was no longer relevant to modern life? Well, that’s somewhat changed since then! And I’ve found the relevance of the Bible to the situation we’re going through fascinating, to be honest.

Is Covid-19 a Judgement From God?

Drawn in by these comments on plagues in Scripture, James was intrigued, so he asked David, “Do you see Covid as God ‘smiting’ us?” Answered David:

No. But I think it’s very interesting. Because that’s such a pejorative question, a lot of church people say, ‘No, no, no.” My view personally is that, if it were not for the restraining hand of God, we would face a lot more ills. And there’s a sense in which it’s a little bit like God’s saying, “Okay, okay, you do it your way.”

So, when I came to Australia we had drought, and then we had bushfires, and now we’ve got plague, and coming up soon, you know, war or something like that. There’s just a lot of stuff that goes on, and we think we’re in control. We think that we can control everything. And I don’t think we can. And I think a lot of the anger that people feel about this, is they think, “Well the government ought to fix this,” or “Someone ought to sort this”. And maybe it’s not within their power to do that. Maybe they can alleviate things and so on.

So my view is that God permits or allows these things. I don’t think Sydney right now has been smitten because — I don’t know — some dreadful sin that Gladys has committed or you or I have committed. I don’t believe that at all. But I do believe these things are permitted to humble us…

Governments — Not Just Religions — Using Fear to Manipulate

David continued his remarks by observing how governments have used fear to produce certain responses from the public. He notes that religious bodies have long been criticised for this —perhaps for good reason — but suggests that we should have a similar level of skepticism when public officials venture into this territory:

One of the things I’m interested in, in all of this, is the way that fear is being used. So you’ll know, James, that sometimes people in religions are accused of using fear to manipulate people. You know good old ‘Catholic guilt’ or ‘Calvinist guilt’ — because I think in a World Cup of guilt we could both be in the final.

And now we’re finding that behavioural psychologists and governments are using fear to manipulate people. And that bothers me a little bit. I have to say, that’s one of the negative sides of the way that, for me, Covid has been handled.

David went on to critique the ramped-up police presence and Covid restrictions in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs:

I’m looking at the Fairfield situation and okay, if you’re going to ask people to get tests but then you can’t ask them to wait for six hours, as some people have been doing, to get those tests, if you’re working, and so on… It seems to me that the purpose of police on horses is to intimidate, to be honest. It’s to create a state of fear.

And maybe I’m being a bit idealistic, but I have a lot of time for communities where people do care for their relatives and larger families, and so on. And I do wonder that, if instead of… using the authority of the state as a form of fear, if rather they went with faith a little bit more and actually said to people, “Look, we need to work together on this.” Because it would strike me that in many of the communities in Western Sydney, they’re much more likely to do that than in some other areas where we’re much more individualistic.

The Cost of Lockdowns, Especially for the Poor

David reflected on the comfort of his own situation, living on the North Shore of Sydney. There, he has beautiful areas to exercise, he can work from home, and he has no children to take care of. But this is a far cry from the situation that many from the working class face, whether in the UK or Australia:

Lockdowns cost lives as well. The UK government has estimated that their lockdown is going to cost 220,000 lives, which is more than Covid… There are at least 60,000 missed breast cancer appointments. The backlog of NHS, in terms of serious surgery waiting list, is reckoned to be 7 million. Suicides, economic loss, lack of education, all the other things that are involved with that. So lockdown comes at tremendous costs.

Now, we talked earlier about the difference between rich and poor. Lockdowns are much easier for richer people than they are for poorer people. And there’s a sense in which some people regard lockdowns as being a way of locking down the poor in order to protect the wealthy and the middle class…

My son works in a very poor housing estate, and he has three young children now. Virtually everyone in his street has had Covid. But the far bigger problems that they face are not being able to get proper hospital treatment; drugs and addiction; lack of jobs; mental health.

To listen to the full show, use this link.

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