Covid-19: Faith Under Stress

Covid-19: Faith Under Stress

David Begg

Until last March, Frank (not his real name) had a good middle level management position with a service provider. Then Covid-19 struck and Frank lost his job, although his employer promised to take him back when conditions improved. Although Frank is receiving the special pandemic welfare payment, he has sustained a heavy financial shock because he was earning €45 – 50k a year. He has three children expecting to go to university soon and he was saving for his pension. Like most people, Frank and his wife are still paying off a mortgage and they took out a loan for a new car last year.

Frank’s employer resumed operations at the end of June. He was told that he might be back in work by August. Then it was September, and now that is not going to happen either. Frank is beginning to worry that he might never be recalled. He has decided to look for another job but jobs are scarce, particularly when you are a middle- manager in your early fifties. But Frank is a man of faith. He holds on to hope.

There are thousands of Franks out there, victims of what The Economist newspaper describes as ‘the 90% economy’.1 What this means is that many businesses are emerging from lockdown short of money, with strained balance sheets and facing weak demand. Then there is the continuing uncertainty. Much about the virus remains unknown, including the chance of a second peak, whether immunity endures and the prospects for a vaccine or cure. To be sure, the manufacturing industry is up and running and the streets are no longer empty. The result is the 90% economy. It is be er than the lockdown but it is far from normal. The worry is that some businesses will not reopen and so people may never work again. The longer the world has to endure a 90% economy, the less likely it is to snap back after the pandemic. Some sectors of the economy will probably be fine, others will not.

The impact of Covid-19 on the labour market is captured in a report published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) on 25 August 2020.2 Unemployment volumes and rates for the end of June were 531,412 persons and 23.1% respectively. By the end of July this had improved somewhat to 386,935 and an unemployment rate of 16.7%. Before the pandemic the unemployment rate was down to 5.2%. At the end of June 433,993 persons were being supported by the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) while 695,867 persons had received at least one payment from the PUP scheme since it began. Those who had left the PUP scheme prior to 9 August had spent an average of 10.5 weeks on the scheme. One in 12 (7.5%) of people interviewed by the CSO indicated that they did not expect to return to the same job after the pandemic. In summary, the CSO estimates that, in total, more than 800,000 people in the second quarter of the year were either unemployed or reliant on the state for wage supports. The sectors most affected were accommodation and food services, administration and support, and construction.

These statistics reveal a great deal about the impact of the pandemic on the labour market but they do not tell us much about the impact on people’s lives. They do not tell us about the shattered dreams, the uncertainty about ever being able to buy a home or start a family, the inability to save for a pension or to afford third level education for children. The statistics do not capture the worries about paying off personal debt or, like Frank, whether one will ever work again.

So how do people keep going in these circumstances? For Christians the answer perhaps is hope. The eminent theologian, Dermot Lane, has written extensively on the virtue of hope. In his recent book,3 he locates hope in the context of eschatology pointing out that hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is an expectation of more of the same based on the law of human progress and development. In contrast, the logic of hope is based not on inference but on the logic of the imagination set on fire by the gift of the spirit. The Redemptorist theologian, Anthony Kelly, put it this way:

‘Hope stirs when the secure system shows signs of breaking down. Hope is at home in the world of the unpredictable where no human logic or expectation is in control […] hope operates in a world of meaning and values. It has a conscience and an intelligence that mere optimism lacks. Hope looks beyond self-regarding satisfactions to the transcendent values that alone can nourish life and give it direction’.4

I don’t expect that many of us spend time drilling deeply into the theological dimensions of hope. But it is the gift of our catholic faith that deep within us there is this understanding that no matter how impossible our situation, nothing is impossible for God.5


1 ‘The 90% Economy: Life after lockdown will be hard in ways that are difficult to manage today’, The Economist, 2 May 2020, p. 7, 2 CSO Labour Force Survey, Quarter

2 2020, 25 August 2020 h ps:// releasesandpublications/er/lfs/ labourforcesurveyquarter22020/

3 Dermot A. Lane, Theology and Ecology in Dialogue, (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2020) p90.

4 Anthony Kelly, Eschatology and Hope (New York: Orbis Books, 2006) pp 5 – 6.

5 Luke 1:37.

David Begg is adjunct professor at Maynooth University Institute of Social Sciences and a former general secretary of ICTU