There is a hidden cost to the social isolation being currently enforced in response to COVID-19 and that is the massive spike in suicide. Tragically, it has been estimated that there has been a 25% increase in people taking their own lives in Australia in 2020. According to journalist Shannon Molloy:
Assuming the current coronavirus death rate remains relatively the same, some 300 people could perish in Australia by the end of the first year of the pandemic.
During that same period, more than double the number are expected to die due to a secondary crisis that has been sparked by COVID-19.
It will be a largely silent death toll and little is being done to drive down the number of victims.
A mental health emergency has erupted in the months since Australia launched its unprecedented response to coronavirus, with anxiety and depression rates skyrocketing.
The consequences of that, coupled with the long-term psychological distressed caused by unemployment and its myriad side-effects, will see suicide rates jump sharply.
Confidential sources from the health and funeral services have informed me that anecdotally this is sadly true, especially amongst the elderly in nursing homes who are restricted in seeing family during this time. What’s more, the increase in these types of deaths is not being reported in the mainstream media so as to not create social unrest.
And yet church gatherings are still being considered by the government as being a “non-essential service”. However, meeting together for corporate worship not only provides excellent social benefits but profoundly existential ones as well. Because not only does it provide the opportunity for emotional, practical and psychological support, but the spiritual resources to deal with the uncertainties of life.
At the heart of the Christian message, in particular, is hope in the face of death. Indeed, this is absolutely integral. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
My observation has been that the overwhelming majority of churches in Australia have been exemplary in their adherence to implementing the government guidelines around COVID-19. And when a case of transmission has occurred they have responded both quickly and transparently.
But it’s time to challenge the narrative that religious gatherings are in any way “non-essential”. Yes, it’s crucial that out of love for neighbour we do everything we can to mitigate the risk that our neighbour could be harmed. But we are also a people who should face the future with faith and not fear.
Not only that, but even on a human level, our meetings provide an enormous psychological benefit to each other as well. They connect us not only with God but also with each other. And that is something that not only gives us hope in the face of death but the strength and joy to live meaningful lives in the here and now.
As those who have been made in the image of God we have been created for relationship. Both with God and also each other. Hence, it is essential that we stay connected to both. For the tragic reality is that if we don’t then many more lives will be lost to self-harm than from the virus of COVID-19.