As I’ve gone through the last few weeks, it’s been extremely obvious that the responses to this COVID-19 pandemic that are NOT denialist have fallen roughly along two different tracks, one of which is profoundly more disturbing than the other: (1) this is life, people die, and the economy and/or profits are more important than that; and (2) this is life, let’s band together, and there’s a lot to grieve here, so let’s make space to do that. In this article, I talk about how both the pandemic and its enablers in the first category I listed are being abusive of the vulnerable and those in the second category.
This analysis will naturally oversimplify to prove a point, and I’m okay with that for the time being.
The Pandemic and Abuse
Defining Abuse and Trauma
So let’s start by acknowledging that this pandemic is deeply traumatic for people, and acknowledge a risk group that hasn’t really been talked about in the medical information: people who are being abused or have been in the past, including the new huge group of those experiencing the pandemic as itself abusive in addition to some of the rhetoric and policies and theologies amplifying the abuse.
The truth is that this pandemic fits all the criteria for BOTH abuse and trauma I lay out in my classes, so let’s start with that. Abuse, in many cases, at least, is when you both expect perfection of someone (or control over something impossible to achieve) and at the same time except them not to be able to reach that standard reasonably. In other words, abuse is expecting what a person can’t reasonably provide and requiring that of them.
Trauma is simply this—a large amount of stress, either at one time or all at once, that your body finds overwhelming.
Vulnerability to This New Threat
In short, this kind of global threat has all the hallmarks of both abuse and trauma.
As I’ve discussed before, because the global threat is sooo big and an effective response demands so much collective action from us, we’re all feeling very vulnerable to it right now.
The Pandemic Beyond Vulnerability
It goes beyond that, though—we’re not only vulnerable in the face of a naturally-occurring threat—we are vulnerable in the face of an extremely unstable threat that causes a situation in which there are absolutely no perfect options.
And the threat seems to be changing as it develops and travels. And of course, just to be mean, it pushes into and magnifies previously existing threats, such as health and safety and financial security insecurities.
So even when we just look at the pandemic itself, and the way good information on it is still in flux, many may experience that as abuse. But on top of that, many previously at-risk populations may be experiencing it as exponentially abusive.
Because yes, abuse does all of that as well. And that can easily both trigger preexisting and currently continuing traumas from other sources with similar characteristics coming from abuse and other traumatic situations that the body often processes as abusive, such as financial insecurity.
Some Examples of Abuse Amplification
So when prominent leaders of countries such as the USA consistently offer different prescriptions for the pandemic than their own medical experts, that just makes everything worse and adds to the abuse.
Similarly, when religious organizations continue to promote unhealthy theologies surrounding embracing suffering, or fail to adapt to recommend love through appropriate social distancing, that too amplifies the abusive effects.
And when the heads of organizations fail to offer grace and employment and sick leave and ability to socially distance and #flattenthecurve through protections wherever reasonable, that too amplifies the abusive effects.
Last but not least, when unstable AND abusive household members get confined with others, that amplifies the effects of the pandemic’s abusive aspects.
Pandemic as Abuser and Amplifier of Abuse
And so this pandemic does at least things: (1) it shares the characteristics of abuse; (2) it digs into preexisting conditions people’s bodies have or are experiencing as abusive; (3) its traumatic effects are amplified and extended by unhealthy human responses, especially in leadership.
How a Sour Communication Climate Can Be Made Worse by These Abusers and Abuses
This means that in the same way that leadership of a nation or business has a strong effect on a communication climate, as I’ve discussed before, the pandemic has created an atmosphere that existing unstable people that are abusive (which is by no means all unstable people) have been replicating and extending its effects into their own spheres of influence.
And of course all of this is made exponentially worse for those living in those overlapping spheres that contain the pandemic, the pandemic’s enablers, and those unstable abusive folks, especially leaders, who the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders make it hard to escape.
Hard to Get Out
Even when it is possible to escape these unhealthy abusive individuals (or groups), their unhealthy rhetoric and policies have strong ripple effects on those in their spheres of influence.
And all of that has further traumatizing effects.
Depressing? Yes. But Let’s Move Toward Hope While Grieving the Suckiness
So I guess I just threw down some sunshine on that, didn’t I? Let me bring us out into a healthier place, then, by bringing us back to population #2 at the very beginning of this article.
The truth is that some governmental leaders and business owners down to those who consider themselves heads of household are exponentially replicating the effects of the pandemic by mirroring and extending its characteristics.
And that sucks rocks, not to put too fine a point on it.
Looking for and Being the Helpers
BUT there are also the helpers. And in this situation we all have chances to do what we can to work against the abuse of the pandemic and the other abusers that are heightening and extending its negative effects.
Holy Week Reminders for Christians
And today, as we head into what many Christians celebrate as Holy Week or Passion Week, it’s really helpful to remember that the glorifications of suffering that too often accompany that celebration are unhelpful and often make those in abusive situations suffer unnecessarily.
Also, those who convince wives in abusive situations that divorce is not an option, for instance, and stigmatizing it while holding up Jesus on the cross as an example to be followed without a good abuse-aware theology, many churches too often become as abusive as a pandemic, while also mirroring the effects of the current pandemic.
We Can Do This Thing, Friends!
In a pandemic where we know that many are in family situations that are literally unhealthy, may those of us in the tend and befriend group reach out to those we know are in situations we realize could be amplifying the effects of the pandemic.
Tangible Support When and How We Can
We can offer social support, and we should also offer tangible support as well wherever we can. We should be advocating for and working toward better leaders when we are able. We should be advocating for and working toward better meeting of needs for the financially insecure.
And we should be doing what we can to advocate for and work toward better situations for domestic violence and other abusive situations in different households—situations that are not for the good of the people in those households or for the common good, but actively extending the abusive effects of the pandemic.
Let’s All Step Up As We’re Able
Those of us in that second group I mentioned up top—the tend and befriend group—have SO MUCH OPPORTUNITY to be emergent leaders in this situation. We can stay sane by looking for the helpers, but also by being the helpers as we’re able in all of the categories I just mentioned and more.
The more the bullies and the abusers are allowed to have the loudest voices, and the rhetoric and policies and theologies that exponentially mirror and extend the effects of the pandemic to the nth degree are allowed to have the most prominent voices, the worse the effects will be.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! May we all have the energy to do our best in whatever way we are suited to make the most positive impact, friends! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against those who are trying to tell us the pandemic’s abuse, and those who mirror it, are the “reasonable” ones—that those things are inevitable.
They are not inevitable. We may not be able to fully predict or control where things can go, but we CAN continue to do what we can to speak up against the toxic crap and keep moving toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing!
One final note about how to relieve our own and others’ experiences of trauma just now: have some self-compassion, friends, even as we strive not to take out our griefs and frustrations on the wrong audiences. Especially for those who have abuse backgrounds, it doesn’t help you break free to replicate and amplify the voice more than usual in your own head. We can’t always fully control that, but we can do our best, which is all we can do. And seek social support and (ideally telehealth) therapy as needed.
Need help speaking up assertively and dealing as well as possible with the conflict that inevitably tends to result? Sign up for our weekly email newsletter—either in the top bar of this page or by checking the appropriate box when you comment on this blog post. After you confirm your email, we’ll send you our “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” in the final welcome email. It will help you with conflict both online and off. You can unsubscribe at any point, but I hope you’ll stick around.