Pandemic Denial Sows Division and Endangers Others

Written by on September 24, 2020

Yesterday, as the United States passed a grim milestone, I tweeted:

As of today, 200,000 dead in the United States. Just a reminder that we are still in a global pandemic, even if your pastor says it is not.

Most pastors were overwhelmingly positive—the tweet was widely shared, with hundreds of retweets and thousands of likes. Many pastors and church leaders indicated they shared the same concern.

However, some were upset. Some pastors felt attacked, which may be understandable if you denied a global pandemic.

If not, there seems to be no reason to see my statement as controversial.

Let me explain.

Pastors who deny the pandemic are wrong and spreading misinformation.

I’ve been trying to understand why some pastors would deny that COVID-19 is a global pandemic. I had hoped that pastors would not be easily fooled by a recent Facebook meme saying this pandemic has been downgraded to an outbreak.

USAToday easily debunked this claim with, “Fact Check: COVID-19 is still a pandemic, even if CDC site calls it an ‘outbreak’”

We rate this claim as FALSE. The meme is wrong. No element of it is true. The COVID-19 outbreak, while often described in that way, is still a pandemic and has been since March 11.

And, I hope they did not join in the misunderstanding of the 6% stat, which was not “quietly updated,” and has been clearly debunked by just about everyone in the medical establishment.

As a professor of epidemiology and statistician explained in USAToday:

None of us will live forever, so death is always a matter of when, not if. That many people who have died of COVID-19 may have been closer to death than the rest of us does not change the fact that the virus killed them before their time.

To argue that only 6% of these deaths are “real” not only discounts the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, it devalues the weeks, months or years all of those with underlying conditions still had to live if the virus had never come.

One article simply explained, “Viral claim that only 6% of COVID-19 deaths were caused by the virus is flat-out wrong.”

So, if it’s not a meme or a misunderstanding of the 6% statistic, what is it?

Since those have both been clearly debunked, why do some pastors (a minority, to be sure), continue to share the misinformation?

How misinformation spreads

Misinformation runs rampant during crises. Once it has been corrected, like the meme and stat have been, I would expect that those spreading its false information would correct themselves as well. It is everyone’s best interest to be unified during crisis. Why reject what COVID-19 really is—a pandemic?

Maybe it is because some pastors see this pandemic as mainly affecting those with comorbidities or those 65 years and older. Maybe they see how the death rate for seniors has been trending downward since the beginning of the pandemic. Maybe they see how hospitalizations aren’t out of control.

Or, maybe they can’t stomach the politicization of the pandemic from both parties. Maybe they are tired of the media peddling fear. Maybe it is because they are tired of the lockdowns on our cities, communities, and businesses; tired of seeing their children struggle with e-learning, depressed over not being able to play sports, or not being able to spend time with their friends at church.

I understand that all of those things might lead to denial. It is part of grief. And we, collectively as a nation, are experiencing massive grief.

However, that still does not change the truth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like an on-going turbulent plane ride that has created stress upon stress, tension upon tension, and we all just want the plane to land and for this nightmare of a ride to end.

But none of the above are reasons to deny the truth of our reality. And our reality is that we are living in a pandemic. The CDC, NIH, WHO, Democrats, Republicans, Congress, your local hospital, your personal physician, and President Trump all know that this is a pandemic.

Thus, when pastors spread false information, it is harmful not only to the public but for our public witness. It is also damaging to the unity of other churches as well. It also makes leadership even harder on pastors who are taking this pandemic seriously.

So, yes, I am criticizing pastors who spread incorrect and false information.

Stay on mission.

If people had read my tweet in normal times, like most pastors did, they would say, “Yes, that makes sense. It’s a pandemic even if your pastor thinks it is not.” Clearly, this was not an attack on pastors. If you thought that, you did not read it well. I was confronting, using my twitter platform, pastors spreading dangerous misinformation. That’s why I believe thousands of people shared it—they know the damage misinformation causes.

We are indeed living in difficult days. I understand the stress we are all feeling and the pressure we are all under—especially pastors. But in crisis we must not forget to face the brutal facts and reality of the situation. We must not be easily swayed by our feelings, emotions, or even our personal desires. And we certainly must not bow to an internet mob.

Here’s reality: You are pastors—heralders of the Good News, shepherds of God’s flock, and mobilizers for God’s mission. You are not a medical doctor nor a virologist. It is quite interesting that some of the most conservative voices on Twitter have been yelling, “Don’t talk about race, just preach the gospel.” Yet, those same voices now say, “I’ve seen a Facebook meme and the pandemic does not exist.”

My encouragement to pastors would be—stay on your mission. Thus, it may be better to preach the gospel and leave the meme-informed medical opinions out.

It’s still a pandemic and we should try to make the best of it.

Here’s the truth that we pastors need.

  1. It’s still a pandemic, even if other pastors say that it is not.
  2. There are millions of good, godly pastors making things work in their local context. The pandemic-denying pastors are making it harder for them, sowing division and misinformation.
  3. Pastors know there is a biblical call to gather and are making that work. Churches (including my own) are meeting in person, some still only or primarily online, with great care and often at great expense.
  4. These faithful pastors are thankful that I am calling out the disinformation. (I am doing that here again.)

I can understand that some may question the severity. (It’s a lot less severe since we took mitigation. As President Trump said, we could have had two million dead if we did not.) So, I am thankful that many in government took this seriously and took action. And, I am thankful for the good work of many pastors who are doing the same—taking this seriously and still faithfully leading God’s people.

Let this sink in: 200,000 people have died in the United States during this pandemic. Denying this truth or arguing “But…they had diabetes” does not change the outcome. 200,000 people this year, breathed their last and entered into eternity—many entering into an eternity without Jesus.

Rather than trying to dismiss COVID-19 as a pandemic, which results in misinformation, division, and hindering of public witness, may every pastor who claims Jesus as Lord and preaches the Good News renew their passion for reaching a dark and dying world. That’s our lane, that’s our mission, and that’s how we will make the best of this pandemic.

So, as I put it on Twitter,

Let’s be thankful for the many godly pastors who ARE aware we are in a pandemic AND are making wise and careful decisions that work in their local context.

But, it’s still a pandemic, even if your pastor (or someone on social media) says it is not.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article and has updated the article.



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