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July 2020 Pulse

An expression that has appeared again and again in reports about measures mandated to contain the global coronavirus outbreak is ‘social distancing’.

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, social distancing (used interchangeably with ‘physical’ and ‘safe’ distancing) ‘means keeping space between yourself and other people outside your home’. In practice, social distancing not only refers to staying at least one or two metres away from other people. It also requires people to ‘stay out of crowded places and avoid mass gatherings.’

The pandemic has made social distancing necessary because of the infectiousness of the coronavirus, which spreads by droplets that are launched in the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even talks. In Singapore, social distancing is taken so seriously at the peak of the outbreak that those who flout the rules are fined $300.

The Covid-19 outbreak, however, has brought to our attention another kind of ‘social distancing’, one which precedes the pandemic and which is deeply entrenched in many societies.

The social distancing that I am referring to here has nothing to do with preventing the spread of a deadly pathogen. The practice has in fact perpetuated the spread of a social virus – equally detrimental to the health and wellbeing of society – that is fuelled by irrational fear, prejudice and discrimination.

This form of social distancing must be stopped! It is a social disease that must be eradicated if society is to become truly humane and flourish.

Social distancing of this kind usually begins with prejudice, which is a biased and distorted idea or opinion about people that is not based on facts. Prejudice invariably leads to discrimination, the unfair treatment premised on race, religion, sex, socioeconomic background, or other characteristics.

But prejudice may also result in fear. History has yielded many examples of such prejudice, discrimination and fear.

In Apartheid South Africa, non-whites are viewed as unfit to participate in the voting process. Because they are seen as inferior to or lesser than their white counterparts, the coloureds are often segregated from the white population and had to live in different neighbourhoods and ghettoised communities.

After 9/11 and the endless torrent of terrorist activities by Islamist extremists that ensured, Muslims are often viewed with suspicion, thus giving rise of Islamophobia in many countries.

Suspicion based on ethnicity or race is, of course, not new. Japanese living in America had a similar experience after Pearl Harbour. Any person of Japanese descent would immediately be considered a suspect because of their genetic link to what is perceived as the enemy country, Japan.

In Singapore, social distancing of this kind is exemplified in the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome.

For example, in May 2012, some residents in Bishan estate signed a petition to stop construction plans for a 260-bed nursing home on an empty field in Bishan Street 13. Although many reasons were given, the main objection to the development is that the residents did not want to have the aged sick living ‘in their backyard’, so to speak.

I am happy to report that in April this year a group of volunteers formed WIMBY (Welcome In My Backyard) to encourage Singaporeans to show hospitality to migrant workers who have been relocated from dormitories to Housing Board estates because of Covid-19. This is surely a small but significant step in the right direction!

The Bible has much to say about this unsavoury form of social distancing.

The most striking is surely the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the locus classicus of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be a neighbour. In this story, we find both the priest and the Levite physically distancing themselves from the injured man, who clearly needed their help, by passing by ‘on the other side’. This powerfully symbolic act of social distancing is no doubt fanned by existing prejudice and perhaps even fear.

In contrast, the Samaritan closed the distance by reaching out to the helpless victim and by going to great lengths to take care of him. In this way, he ‘proved neighbour to the man who fell among the robbers’ (10:36).

The point of the story is made even more poignant and compelling when we note that the victim (who presumably was a Jew) was shunned by his own countrymen, but was helped by a Samaritan, despite the centuries-old bad blood between the two races.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, of course, in many significant ways, point beyond itself to the One who bridges not only the chasm between the infinite and the finite and the Creator and the created, but also between the holy and the sinful. It points to thrice holy God, who, because of love sends his Son to redeem sinful humanity, not from a distance, but by becoming a member of the human race.

In the Incarnation, we not only see God taking up human flesh, but also identifying himself fully and unreservedly with humanity in all its fallen concreteness (although the incarnate one remains sinless).

Thus, in Hebrews we read:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage … Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people (2:14-17).

We might say that because of Christ, the social distance and alienation between the sinner and the holy God has been eradicated. Because of him, fellowship between the fallen creature and the Creator is possible once again. For God has in Christ taken the initiative to bridge the chasm and to close the gap in order that he may show himself to be the God who is near – Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23).

Similarly, in Christ the chasm between human beings – due to prejudice, fear, discrimination, cultural and social ‘apartheid’ – is bridged. In one of the most profound and moving passages in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the apostle writes: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ’ (3:28).

The mediator between God and man is also the mediator between human beings. Christ, writes the Apostle poignantly, ‘is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2:14).

Among the many things that Covid-19 has inadvertently revealed is the stark social distances that exist between people groups – the rich and the poor, the majority race and minority ethnic groups, etc. The pandemic has shone a light on the ugliness of the social alienation, discrimination and fear of the other that have always plagued human societies, but are often camouflaged by empty rhetoric and a veneer of civility.

It is hoped that when the pandemic has passed, societies all over the world will learn the many hard lessons it has taught, especially the need to put aside prejudices and to respect one another as valued members of the human family.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.