We all know about the many individuals (and families) impacted by the two years of COVID19. We also know about its harmful effects on some of our cherished business firms and institutions. Public schools and colleges and their students and teachers, because learning is enriched by the presence of one another. Team sports. Hospitals.Governments. Nursing homes filled with frail and elderly people isolated in pandemic-induced lockdowns. The travel industry. Restaurants.
There is another critcal group of social institutions that have been largely suffering in silence. They are what sociologists call “mediating structures”—voluntary and nonprofit organizations that thrive on direct human contact and wither and die in a virtual world. Faith communities, civic organizations, and volunteer-dependent nonprofits have all withered and decayed during the era of Zoom. In fairness to Zoom, it has also empowered participation by those who can’t get out to be physically present, a gain that will continue into the post-pandemic era. Fueled by COVID, Zoom has also powered networks across distances and enabled the creation of virtual communities, like the statewide working groups on specific issues (health care, environment, public education) that I have been mentoring on behalf of the state League of Women Voters. But on balance, there seems to be more loss than gain.
My faith community, despite two years of increasingly creative virtual services and innovative ways of engaging families with children, has lost members, attendance, and financial support, and many of those lost are unlikely to return after two years. That is true of many congregations, which are sustained by bonds of mutual support that are nurtured by direct contact and chance encounters at worship, a potluck, or other gatherings that bring people together in one room. I am also a member of a lifelong learning community and a civic community, both of which have relied on virtual meetings and have experienced steadily declining attendance and members.
I have long been fascinated by the somewhat obscure statistical concept of Type I and Type 2 error. A choice to play it safe and minimize risk (Type 2 error) is by default a way to increase the likelihood of missing good outcomes (Type 1 error). That set of choices lies behind the confusing and ever-changing signals from the CDC and others about how to keep both safety and community alive during a pandemic. Most choices are not binary, but more nuanced, finding the right point along a continuum.
I am a cautious risk taker. I am fully vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask in groups, prefer open-air encounters or small groups of the also-vaccinated. But when offered a choice of how to attend a a worship service, a committee meeting, a social or organizational gathering, or a class, I almost always opt for the in-person version. My physical presence will make a difference to others and their physical presence matters to me. As the pandemic wanes (it will never disappear entirely), please consider what social institutions you need and that need you, and promise to return. These organizations are an integral part of the social fabric in which we affirm our need for personal encounters and mutual support. Go to church. Coach a team. Volunteer at a food bank. Take a class in person.
My daughter Carla, a singer-songwriter, wrote a funny pandemic song about how the patriotic thing to do was to sit on you a__ and do nothing. There was a time for that. Now it is time to carefully rebalance safety and community, and the task is urgent. Stay safe. Be present. If you are vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, and pick your venues, you can do both. You, our communities, and our nation will be enriched and strengthened by your active engagement.