Back in 2003, model railroaders in southern Ontario were eagerly awaiting the upcoming National Model Railroader Association convention in Toronto. This was significant since this was to be the first time the NMRA held their annual convention outside the United States. But as luck would have it, Toronto was hit with the SARS virus. Enough people canceled their reservations that the NMRA had to cancel the convention. A train show was still held in Toronto that Summer, but it paled in comparison to what should have happened.
(For some reason, the NMRA website still lists Toronto as the site of the 2003 convention.)
SARS was a big deal. However, for most of us in Toronto, life went on with little disruption. The outbreaks were mainly limited to a couple of hospitals, and all area hospitals took severe measures to mitigate the spread. By the time the danger had passed, the SARS virus took the lives of 24 people in Ontario. However, the panic resulted in the cancellation of many more events in the Toronto area, not just the NMRA convention.
Compare that to today. As a result of COVID-19, another corona virus, few places are free from infection. Currently, the United States is experiencing one death every 53 seconds from COVID. And that’s just the official count. The actual number of deaths is almost certainly much higher.
And yet, look at the attitude of many people in the US. I wonder this: Of the people who canceled their trips to Toronto back in 2003, how many are now actively taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus? How many are wearing masks? How many are practicing social distancing? And how many are attending events where people don’t take the virus seriously enough?
The latest news from the US is disheartening. The United States Supreme Court ruled that, in the state of New York, social distancing rules do not apply to churches. This is insane! The virus doesn’t differentiate between secular and sacred spaces. Once vaccines are available and people get vaccinated, there will still be people who will refuse the vaccine. Infection rates will drop of course, but with people refusing to get vaccinated and with people still congregating in places where mitigation measures are willfully ignored, it will still take some time before the virus outbreak is fully under control.
Currently, churches are already a major source of COVID infection, and now will continue to confound public health efforts to contain the virus. How will this affect religion long-term? Even before COVID, church attendance has been dropping. But now that we’re in a pandemic, interest in church has been falling even further. Although there are still people who don’t take COVID seriously enough, there are a lot of people who do, and many of them see how dangerously out of touch many conservative preachers are. This can only drive even more people into the “nones” category. If there’s a positive to COVID, I suppose this is it: As the churches become even more of a factor in the spread of COVID, the ineffectiveness and dangers of religious practices will become even more obvious.