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Jana Riess: Dear Latter-day Saints, please take coronavirus seriously

(Jeremy Harmon | Tribune file photo) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast Oct. 4, 2019.

On Wednesday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took the rare step of prohibiting attendance at its upcoming semiannual General Conference, which is scheduled for April 4–5, because of the coronavirus. The conference’s 10 hours of programming will go forward as planned, with speakers and music being streamed live online, but the 21,000-seat Conference Center in Salt Lake City will be empty.

The church has been promising for months that this particular General Conference, which will commemorate the 200th anniversary of founder Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” would be historic and unlike any other previous conference. Well, it’s certainly new and different, but not in the ways we hoped for. It’s not the absolute first time that General Conference has been closed to the public, but it has not occurred during many members’ lifetimes; this happened roughly 75 years ago during World War II. President Russell M. Nelson, who is 95, no doubt remembers that, but most of the rest of us do not.

I was glad to hear the church’s announcement, because over the past few weeks I’ve seen many members fail to take this virus seriously. Just this Sunday at church a very smart person I care about complained that the threat is overhyped and people are panicking for no reason, since it’s just like the seasonal flu.

She’s not alone in voicing this, but the view is dangerously wrong.

This is not the seasonal flu. Even if the death rate from coronavirus turns out to be just 1% instead of 2% to 3%, which the earliest studies showed, or over 6% (!), which is what it is as of today in Italy, a death rate of 1% is still 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.

This is a novel virus for which we have no prior immunity and no vaccine.

Let that sink in for a minute. This means the two things that normally slow the spread of a viral infection are not available to us. The only protection we have is to try to slow the virus as it moves through the population, so that it can’t reproduce faster than the world’s health care systems can treat the sick. And the only ways to do that are through quarantines, compulsive hand-washing, and (we pray) prayer.

In Italy, the infection is spreading so quickly that hospitals can’t keep up. There are reports of ICU patients being treated in hallways because there are no beds available. A Newsweek op-ed by someone who identifies herself as “a doctor in a major hospital in Western Europe” says her colleagues in northern Italy are actually having to prioritize which patients to save, because the system is overwhelmed with so many people being sick at the same time.

Remember that statistic about how more than 80% of people experience only mild symptoms with coronavirus and feel like they have the regular seasonal flu? Terrific — for them. But that means that up to 20% can have more severe cases, some requiring hospitalization and even acute respiratory care. If our health care system is slammed all at once, the U.S. is in trouble. According to The New York Times, the U.S. has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, which is even less than Italy (3.2).

We have got to Slow. It. Down.

Having the church step in and so clearly take the coronavirus seriously is a significant step in getting Latter-day Saints around the world to pay attention. And church leaders didn’t just stop at limiting General Conference. Some other announcements included:

  • A ban on large religious gatherings in areas “where illness caused by COVID-19 is a challenge,” including much of Asia, Europe, the United States and Canada.

  • Restrictions on new recruits to the Missionary Training Centers in Provo and Preston, England. As of March 16, anyone who had been scheduled to enter those MTCs to train for a mission will “be trained remotely by videoconference.”

  • Cancellations at church-owned Brigham Young University, including graduation exercises, the annual BYU Women’s Conference, devotionals, lectures, performances and concerts. Some of these things will be livestreamed; others will be postponed or canceled altogether.

  • More temple closures. This is something I was particularly grateful to see, since so many temple patrons are elderly and therefore more vulnerable to the virus. The temple ceremonies themselves also involve a fair amount of physical contact and hand-to-hand touching. These closures are happening all over the world now, not just in hot spot places like Japan and Italy. I woke up to the news that our own region’s temple in Louisville will be closed effective immediately, at least through the weekend.

  • Sunday meeting cancellations. The last part of the church’s statement says that “In relation to weekly worship services, activities and other meetings, members should follow the guidance of their local leaders, who will receive direction in the usual manner.” This suggests that sacrament meetings and Sunday school will be canceled in some parts of the U.S., as has happened elsewhere in the world. This afternoon, Utah’s governor stated that starting on Monday, through month’s end, there should be no meetings of 100 people or more anywhere in the state. “This includes church gatherings,” he clarified.

Most of the chatter I’ve seen in reaction to the church’s decisions has been positive, though some Latter-day Saints wonder if the church overreacted by not permitting the public to attend conference. It is not an overreaction. It boils down to this: Which member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency do you see as expendable? The death rate for the elderly is disproportionately high, apparently in the range of 10% to 12%. Statistically, that means that if all 15 elderly men in the Quorum and the First Presidency came down with the virus, one or two of them would die of it.

I hope that Latter-day Saints who are lucky enough to stay healthy over these next weeks and months will remember that we’re isolating ourselves to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. Sam Brown, an ICU physician in Salt Lake City, has a wonderful post about this at By Common Consent, in which he outlines things that members of the church can do to practice “social distancing” (isolation) while also continuing to study the gospel together online, take care of the poor, and keep each other’s spirits afloat. For once I would advise also reading the comments. They’re actually helpful and interesting, especially this one from Sam, who says that our swift action now can mitigate disaster:

“We have vulnerable people at high risk for imminent death, and we can actually step in and save them with modifications to our society that only last a month or two. This is a Willie and Martin handcart company moment, in my view.”

Yes, this is a Willie and Martin Handcart company moment. The Sunday sermon for every Sunday in the near future is this: Do everything you can to benefit your neighbor, even at cost to yourself. The gospel lesson every day for the weeks and months to come is this: The job of the 80% is to deliver the 20% to safe harbor.

This views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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