Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Monkey Business

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 1 August 2022

In an apocalyptic-sounding turn of events, the Governor of New York – the state in which I presently reside – declared a State Disaster Emergency (yes, all three words are capitalized) in response to the monkeypox outbreak. It is the same type of declaration as was issued when hurricane Ida struck NYC. In addition to the governor’s getting some political “street cred” for being proactively on top on things, local healthcare authorities will get reimbursements from the state’s budget for actually fighting the disease. And considering that our emergency medical services are not collapsing from an influx of monkeypox patients, it seems to me that most of my taxpayer’s share of the response will be spent on “raising awareness.” Therefore, preemptively and completely free of charge for the State, I decided to raise my own awareness of this ongoing Disaster Emergency.

First, I was quite happy to discover that the risk of my contracting this Disastrous Emergency of a disease is virtually non-existent. No, it is not because I have been vaccinated against smallpox as a child – although, I have been – or because I was lucky enough to become a recipient of the newly-released stockpile of the Jynneos vaccine – I was not, nor do I plan to be so lucky – but for a very different reason. This reason is not for the squeamish; so, if your sensibilities are easily offended, or you are of the age of innocence (and if you immediately thought of Joshua Reynolds, you probably are at heart), you may wish to read this post no further.

Monkeypox, we are told by the NYDOH, is “spread through close, intimate contact,” That is to say, if a parent cuddles a child for a bed-time story, the disease may spread, if either the parent or the child happens to be infected. Likewise, two Greco-Roman wrestlers may pass the disease to each other during a match. But surprisingly, it is not singlet-clad wrestlers or bed-time story lovers who are getting and spreading monkeypox. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, upwards of 95% of all cases have been transmitted during sex between men; or as Governor Hochul put it, in “certain at-risk groups”; while as of July 20 only 2 (yes, two – as in, “one, two”) infected individuals in all of the U.S. have self-identified as straight. (In any case, while our government seems to be incapable of defining a woman, it is refreshing that it knows what a man is, at least, when he has sex with other men.)

Some may immediately declare that God is punishing gays, but I think it is much more interesting to try to ask why a disease that is spread by “close, intimate contact” is not spreading among heterosexual people who routinely engage in such contact. Simply being a homosexual should not magically make one infected with monkeypox or HIV. In a true spirit of equality, both diseases are perfectly capable of infecting anyone without any regard for age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity. And yet, in the United States, both monkeypox and HIV have mostly affected “certain at-risk groups.” But why?

Commenting on this inexplicable health disparity, The Washington Post opined, “this is what disparities look like in accessing testing, vaccines and treatment for monkeypox.” Can this really be true? Can it be that everybody – parents, children, seniors in retirement homes, even Greco-Roman wrestlers – are getting tested, vaccinated, and treated for monkeypox as we speak, but men who have sex with men are not, especially in San Francisco and New York City, as if these were the two most intolerant places in all of the united States? I hope that the author of this opinion and his editor do not actually believe this nonsense and are instead engaged in propaganda. I can understand propaganda; but in this case, it is not helpful. Imagine that you have a gambling problem, and you spend so much money that you can no longer afford to pay your mortgage or your utilities or to buy food. And imaging saying to your wife: “This is what disparities look like in accessing housing, electricity, and groceries.” No, not helpful. If you refuse to name the real problem, you cannot hope to solve it. If instead of addressing your gambling addiction you decide to join a group called Gamblers for Equal Access to Housing, your bank is not likely to be impressed.

The real problem that makes “certain groups” at-risk is not their sexual orientation. Women who have sex with women, for example, do not appear to be driving the numbers of monkeypox infections, even though they are the L in LGBTQ; and presumably, neither do those women who happen to identify as men and are thus the T. In order to better understand what may be happening with monkeypox, it is instructive to take a look at the similar and in-many-ways-related HIV epidemic in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, some countries, such as Botswana, for example, report more than 40% of all adults – most of whom are heterosexual – infected with HIV; and in Fracistown, around 50% of pregnant women test positive for HIV – these are pregnant women who have sex with men who have sex with women. According to an article published in the Discover magazine (Feb. 2004), the reason for the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is quite simple – at least, mathematically. As far back as the 1980s, “Australian demographer John Caldwell insisted that the virus was spreading rapidly in Africa simply because people there tended to have more sexual partners than people elsewhere.” Apparently, this was not self-evident enough to policy makers at the time, and a search for a more convoluted and implausible explanation continued for several decades. “Recently, though,” the article continues, “some experts, including epidemiologist James Chin of the University of California at Berkeley, have revisited the theory. Chin believes it’s the only possible explanation: ‘People tell me not to say it, but I strongly believe it.'” The key discovery is that, for cultural reasons, people in sub-Saharan Africa tend to have many sexual partners concurrently – sometimes, 10 or more. For example, “Ugandan men and women had sex many times over many years with each of their partners. If one of those partners was HIV-positive, the relationship would prove very risky over time.” Thus, the maths are quite simple: if a person has only five partners at one time, and each one of them has five others, then the person in question is in a “once-removed” relationship with twenty-five people simultaneously, in addition to a “twice-removed” relationship with 125 people and a “thrice-removed” relationship with another 625, for a total of 775 people all at the same time – and we are only half-way to the six degrees of Kevin Bacon! Before too long, thousands of people are exchanging diseases with each other and creating an epidemic. I do not write this as a judgment of African cultures or values – far from it! – but rather as a condemnation of the Western response to the problem. Ignoring the real problem and pretending that the HIV epidemic in Africa is caused by a lack of condoms or pills or by poverty, and that we need to send more of condoms or corn to the continent, is strangely unintelligent. Gay men in the U.S. have a much greater access to both condoms and corn – at least, compared to the pregnant women in Botswana – and yet they also experience an HIV epidemic. Conversely, severely impoverished people in Afghanistan lack access to both American condoms and American corn, and yet there is no HIV epidemic in Afghanistan. One need not be well-schooled in the scientific method in order to suspect that scientists and politicians who refuse to address the real causes of the HIV and monkeypox epidemics are mostly engaged in monkey business.

In a previous post on same-sex marriage, I mentioned that a “quick internet research reveals that 28% of gay men have over 1000 sexual partners in their lifetime” and many others are not too far behind. Many of these relationships are concurrent, rather than consecutive. Whatever the definition of “concurrent” may apply in this situation, WHO experts believe that the present monkeypox outbreak “appears to have been caused by sexual activity at two recent raves in Europe.” Compare this to an article in Scientific American from June of this year that proudly reported: “In Chicago last month, thousands of gay men gathered for the first time in three years for the annual International Mr. Leather conference, a four-day-long affair where men from all over the world gathered to strut their stuff in leather gear, have lots of sex, and compete to be named International Mr. Leather… Gay men socialize in intimate ways in large groups—at saunas, at raves and at conferences like International Mr. Leather.” (An attentive reader will undoubtedly notice the relevant parts in this description.) In other words, the epidemic is driven by a lifestyle, not sexual orientation of persuasion as such. (Full disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, and you may wish to consult with your healthcare provider before engaging in “close, intimate contact” with your spouse or cuddling your children.) Curiously, the CDC appears to be on to this. In one list of recommendations (most of which are not suitable for reproducing here), one finds the following statement:

Having multiple or anonymous sex partners may increase your chances of exposure to monkeypox. Limiting your number of sex partners may reduce the possibility of exposure.

Note that unlike other items on the list, such as “have virtual sex with no in-person contact,” the statement above is not in the imperative mood, not worded as a recommendation, but rather as a hedgy aside; and it is not helpful. Limiting from 1000 to 700 in a lifetime? Asking for a name before indulging? The mention of anonymity is especially puzzling, since it is impossible for me to ascertain precisely how anonymity contributes to the risk of infection, or how knowing someone’s name would mitigate that risk. Similarly, the WHO says that, “for men who have sex with men [it is recommended] for the moment, reducing your number of sexual partners, reconsidering sex with new partners, and exchanging contact details with any new partners…” Whatever precisely is meant by “reducing,” it is just “for the moment.” Oh, and don’t forget to get his number. I suppose, one cannot expect governments to be in the business of putting restrictions on people’s lifestyles, even if these lifestyles cause a Disaster Emergency… Oh, wait! Was it not in recent memory that our government shut down churches and prohibited people from visiting their elderly parents? Perhaps then, gay saunas and Mr. Leather events could also be re-considered. – Just a thought…

No, I do not think that God is punishing gay men with monkeypox any more than He punishes alcoholics with liver cancer or smokers with lung cancer. No one has died from monkeypox in the U.S., but almost 700 thousand people in the U.S. have died of heart disease in 2020 (twice the number of COVID deaths for the same year), yet there is no Disaster Emergency declaration for this lifestyle-related illness. Unlike “certain at-risk groups,” however, heart disease sufferers are not protesting and demanding that the government address their health concerns. Alcoholics are not demanding that the government spend money on developing a vaccine that allows them to binge-drink non-stop and still avoid health consequences. Smokers are not demanding that the government fund campaigns to fight against the social stigma of smoking. And diabetics do not demand that the taxpayers foot the bill for free salads for anyone addicted to sugary drinks. Yet “certain at-risk groups” hold protests and demand “quicker investment in our stockpile of monkeypox vaccines.” Even though lesbians are not yet affected by the disease, the National Center for Lesbian Rights is “demanding that the Federal government take action to stop the spread of hMPXV [human monkeypox virus – S.S.] and protect the health of LGBTQ individuals now” [the emphasis on now is theirs]. They are demanding that the federal, state, and local governments take “more immediate action” and warn that “a continued lack of urgency will not be tolerated.” It seems that the only thing not being demanded is an immediate change to the lifestyle that puts “certain groups” at risk.

Here are some curious maths: the rate of monkeypox infection, the dreaded and apocalyptic Disaster Emergency, in the at 0.00157% – that is 15 ten-thousandth of one percent. The rate of obesity the U.S. (not counting the overweight numbers – just the obese ones), is at 43% – almost 29 thousand times higher. No deaths from monkeypox have been reported in the U.S., but at least 300,000 deaths per year linked to obesity have been reported as far back as 20 years ago, and this number only continues to grow. Imagine if all the chubby Americans descended on Washington and demanding that the federal government do something – spend more money, raise more awareness, develop more vaccines – in order that more body-positive Americans could eat all the doughnuts and drink all the soda they want with no health consequences of any kind! Perhaps, we should.

As much as I am not in favor of government meddling in people’s lives, especially, in how or with whom people engage in “close and intimate contact,” it would be very amusing to see the CDC mandate that men who have sex with men maintain social distancing of six feet, wear personal protective equipment, and to impose a limit on attendance at Pride and Mr. Leather to twenty-five or fewer. (The rest of the attendees could join by Zoom, of course.) Only for two weeks – to flatten the curve.

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On the Closure of Churches–3

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 10 May 2020

Well, we have finally succumbed to the pandemic and held our first video discussion. I am still not live-streaming services (although I have done so, many years ago, for reasons completely unrelated to the current pandemic). The topic of our virtual discussion was the Eucharistic presence during the lock-downs, and what it means, or whether it is possible, to be present at the Eucharist via video chat. The participants in our discussion shared many interesting ideas and perspectives, and here are a few of my own afterthoughts.

A word of caution

First and foremost, we all seemed to agree that just because technology exists, that does not mean that it is good or appropriate by default. It seems that almost universally, almost without questioning, Orthodox churches began to live-stream services as soon as the various procurators and governors told us to do so. The situation was developing very rapidly, the technology was immediately available, and we dove in without an opportunity to question the very nature of what we were doing. Essentially, Facebook Liturgies caught us by surprise. On the one hand, some, like me, had already experimented with live-streaming for years–though never as an alternate way to “attend” services. On the other hand, we have all become very used to enjoying various audio and video recordings of everything church-related–from Liturgies to church choir concerts, and from Orthodox fiction to daily prayers. So, when we were told to log on for the Eucharist, we did not find this too objectionable. Yet the theological work of examining the spiritual safety and implications of these practices has not yet been done. (more…)

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On the Closure of Churches – 2

Posted in Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 23 March 2020

See also:

On the Closure of Churches

Liturgical Minyan

Fasting During a Pandemic

My previous post “On the Closure of Churches” made some people wonder whether I am not taking the threat of the viral pandemic seriously, or whether I am advocating for some sort of disobedience to our civil authorities. I do not think that it is absolutely necessary for me to clarify my position. First of all, I try to make it abundantly clear that I am not a medical doctor, nor do I have any training in virology. Anyone who cares about what a non-expert like me thinks about such complex matters as pandemics, is making a serious error in his or her judgment. Secondly, not only did I not advocate for breaking social-distancing rules, but we, along with everyone else, have dutifully closed our services to the public and are in full compliance with all applicable government orders.

That said, however, I find it important to continue the conversation about the place in which the Holy Church finds Herself today. Should our only response to the government’s order to jump be in asking ‘how high?’ Or should we have a healthy degree of self-awareness and take personal responsibility for both our physical and spiritual health and needs? I trust it is obvious to everyone that the situation with the pandemic is developing very rapidly, and many things are in a state of flux. But here are a few things that I find important to observe and of which to be aware. (more…)

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Fasting During a Pandemic

Posted in Fasting, Practical Matters, Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 22 March 2020

Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. — Lk 12:32

Today, the Holy Church venerates the Life-Giving Cross of Christ. Despite the raging pandemic, we continue our observance of Great Lent as we look forward to the Pascha of the Lord, His bright and glorious resurrection. As the mass media proclaims death in an overload of non-stop “news” about the coronavirus, the Church continues to proclaim life. (more…)

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On the Closure of Churches

Posted in Practical Matters, Reflections, Uncategorized by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 20 March 2020

See also:

On the Closure of Churches – 2

Liturgical Minyan

Fasting During a Pandemic

Update 2020-03-21: On March 20, 2020 Illinois Governor Pritzker issued an executive order the prohibited “all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring outside a single household.” Thus, the order prohibits all and any religious activities or services, unless officiated by members of a single household, and shuts down all churches. Strangely, this order exempts liquor stores and recreational cannabis dispensaries (presumably, due to their essential function). [*] 

2020-03-20: In a surreal move, governors of several states banned religious worship. The governor of Wisconsin, for example, specifically included religious worship in his ban on gatherings greater than 10 people (which naturally applies to all but the very smallest mission congregations and would have banned even Christ Himself from congregating with His 12 apostles), while the governor of New York banned all “non-essential” gatherings of any size. (It is unclear at this point whether Andrew Cuomo would consider the celebration of the Eucharist–even by just one priest and one chanter–to be essential, but my best guess is that he would not.) (more…)

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