Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Vulnerable Populations

April 13, 2020

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While all people are susceptible to COVID-19, the ongoing pandemic disproportionately affects high-risk populations, including the elderly and people with underlying conditions. Not only are older adults and those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease more likely to suffer serious complications from coronavirus, but they are also more vulnerable to the isolating effects of social distancing measures. For both populations, who are more susceptible to loneliness, social isolation can come with serious health risks such as depression, cognitive decline, and impaired immunity. The pandemic poses other challenges for those who need constant support in long-term care facilities, hotspots for the virus. As COVID-19 continues to dominate the headlines, there have been increasing calls to help the elderly through new initiatives, such as seniors-only shopping hours.

The pandemic has also drawn greater attention to the everyday lives of people with disabilities. Quarantine measures can prove difficult for people with disabilities who require the support of caregivers. The closure of schools has disrupted important services for students in special education classes, leaving parents wondering how to cope with change that can be unsettling for their children. But the pandemic also provides a unique opportunity to reflect on how we see disability and chronic illness in American society. The pandemic is the first time many able-bodied people are experiencing limited access to public spaces and the ill effects of social isolation, key challenges of daily life for many people with disabilities. The widespread shift to working from home also demonstrates the practicality of workplace accessibility, a longtime goal for disability activists. 

Religion can play important roles in continued action on structural problems faced by the elderly and people with disabilities. Various religious traditions—including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—provide different models of disability grounded in theological and ethical reflection. Religious communities and faith-based organizations have long served the needs of vulnerable populations and have continued to do so during the pandemic. And faith leaders often speak of helping those in need. Pope Francis, for example, calls for a “culture of encounter” that inspires people to walk with and advocate for the marginalized. 

This week the Berkley Forum asks: What are the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic on the structural challenges facing vulnerable populations? How can religious ethics inform approaches to the elderly and people with disabilities, especially in light of the current pandemic? How might coronavirus-related behavior change figure into long-term efforts to create a more inclusive society? What are the next steps in aging and disability advocacy following the conclusion of the pandemic? 

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