Trying to keep abreast of the relevant findings about SARS-Cov-2 is a fully time job for someone, but it is a real challenge for a busy college professor with a host of other responsibilities. I am grateful for the work of public health organizations that curate high quality scientific publications and summarize those most pertinent. CIDRAP, for example, has been part of my daily news crawl since before this pandemic had a name.
Recently they highlighted work by a team of Chinese scholars published in the British medical journal, The Lancet. The paper evaluates the health of Covid survivors 6 and 12 months after infection. Reading the paper, I was struck that the probability of a patient experiencing lingering symptoms were similar for patients, regardless of the severity of their initial infections. One response to reading the paper was to simply tighten my mask before heading in to teach a class. But a second consequence was a dawning realization that the data points in the paper represent humans made in the image of God.
The researchers followed 1,276 people from the time they were discharged from the hospital through the next year. The people studied had an average age of 59 years. Based on that, I imagine many of them are young grandparents. Their average stay in the hospital was 14 days. I have never been hospitalized for a full week, much less two weeks (thanks be to God). That alone would make it the most traumatic health crisis of my life.
Many of these survivors have not yet fully recovered. Forty-nine percent of the study population still experiences at least one symptom a full 12 months after leaving the hospital. The symptoms the researchers followed range from the annoying (fatigue or sleep disorders) to the disruptive (pain or anxiety). These survivors experience regular reminders of their trauma, and with each recurrence they must wonder if it will ever go away. At this point, no one can tell them that it will.
Anyone with a news app is inundated with information about studies, new research papers, and the latest discoveries (for example, coffee is good for you again, apparently). But with a constant flow of studies exploring the pandemic and the virus that has caused it, it is too easy for me to forget the human stories behind the data.
In part, it is an unfortunate result of my training in molecular and microbiology. I never worry about the feelings of the enzymes I study, and I don’t ask for consent before I bleach bacteria. The section of David Smith’s On Christian Teaching that I found most convicting was when he discussed what faces are shown in class. Instead of worrying about a lack of diversity in my slides, I was horrified to realize that my slides are almost totally devoid of people at all. I have unconsciously been teaching my students that the molecular sciences are abstract, faceless, and intellectual. I have been part of the problem, reinforcing the habit of seeing numbers before people even though I am perfectly aware that the objectivity of science is a myth.
But my discipline is not the only reason I miss the people behind the data. This pandemic has flooded us with numbers. From the daily case counts at the county, state, and national levels on the New York Times, to positivity rates from local departments of public health, and areas of substantial spread from the CDC—we are adrift in numbers. Even local church elder boards are trying to faithfully respond to the positivity rate when deciding on the nature of Sunday worship.
But these are not just numbers, they are people—human beings, creatures, daughters, sons, fathers, grandmothers, neighbors, and mentors. They are saints and loud mouths, church mice and braggarts. They are made in the image of God.
I tend to lean into the relational aspects of the image of God and focus on how the image includes our relationship to God, one another, and the world. Therefore, it is my belief that I best reveal in whose image I am made by living into my relationships and honoring God with them. This is how I display my own humanity and recognize the humanity of those around me.
But relationships have been difficult lately. I don’t want any reminder of our shared humanity to become a reminder of our shared mortality. While I am closer with my immediate family than I have ever been, basically all other relationships have been distanced, masked, or zoomed out. That means the humanity of the people in my circle has never been clearer while, to me, your humanity has never been more obscured.
At this start of a new academic year, I am trying to put on my mask and go be with my fellow image bearers. Being in the classroom with students and hearing their stories reminds me that they too have had a long and traumatic pandemic. By being together we can remember our shared humanity, and by being vulnerable with the image bearers in my community, I can remember my own.
I suggest we start by praying for those behind the numbers. Let’s pray for the 831 patients in the study still feeling the touch of Covid a year out, for the masked and silent students carefully distanced around the room, and let’s pray to God with gratitude for the opportunity to gather in person to share one another’s burdens. Doing so will help us embrace each other as persons and become more like the humans we are made to be.