Amid growing concerns over the COVID-19 Coronavirus, there have been varied Christian responses to the virus and its effects. Some see it as a sign of the end times, claiming it is the fulfillment of prophecy from the Bible of a ‘deadly pestilence’ judgment in the last days. Others, like the Gospel Coalition, for example, take a more measured approach. I especially appreciated this article in helping to distinguish between fact and fiction and the use of proper terminology when referring to disease.
Labelling COVID-19 a ‘pandemic’ says nothing about the seriousness of the virus, only that it is continuing to spread beyond a specific geographical region (‘pan’ is the prefix often used to suggest something that is global in scope). Strictly by the numbers, COVID-19 may not necessarily warrant the kind of fear it has been creating. More people die of influenza every year in the United States alone than have died from the Coronavirus globally to date. Even if we extract out the deaths to an annual number, based on current trends, the numbers do not necessarily favour the Coronavirus being treated on a different level than influenza. At the same time, those numbers are changing daily, and we could see a dramatic shift in the coming weeks and days. What I see as the primary difference between the two in how we respond comes down to a fear of the unknown.
We have an influenza vaccine – though that vaccine is not always 100% effective – and it needs to be administered annually in order to limit our likelihood of contracting the virus. Conversely, COVID-19 has no vaccine, and the only safeguards we have in place to prevent its spread are ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distance’; two terms we see a lot in the media right now. One thing that is helpful to remember is that, at one point in time, what we are experiencing with COVID-19 was at one time experienced with influenza. So how might we respond faithfully and responsibly to this growing pandemic?
I believe it is somewhat of a misnomer to suggest that all this hype is for naught, considering that most people who contract COVID-19 recover with sometimes minimal symptoms. The numbers, as suggested above, seem not to warrant the extensive scale of closures, cancellations, and activity suspensions that late last week were growing by the hour. Yet, if we are concerned with preventing the spread of the disease when our current methods of containment are not working, these measures may be the only responsible thing to do. I agree that we should not cave to fear and allow the potential of something happening to cripple us and prevent us from carrying on our daily lives. Even if life carried on as usual, the likelihood of anyone in our midst contracting COVID-19 may be slim. It seems strange and perhaps even exhibiting a ‘lack of faith’ to take such drastic measures in the face of this uncertainty and unpredictability. But having faith is not about deliberately exposing ourselves, and, by extension, others to potential danger (read ‘unnecessary risks’ a la last Sunday morning’s message). Having faith is absolutely trusting that God will protect us and provide for us as he promises throughout scripture and he has proven time and again throughout history. At the same time, we are also called and commanded to care for those most vulnerable in our society. This, I think, embodies how we ought to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not, cannot, and should not be reason to focus on protecting only ourselves, but about protecting those most vulnerable in society and being the compassionate hands and feet of Christ to a frightened and confused world.
It did feel somewhat apocalyptic when I was in the grocery store on Friday afternoon and the shelves had been all-but stripped bare of many essentials like bread, flour, and pasta. In speaking with the lady at the till, she told me it had been non-stop for several days. She even had one person come through who spent over $700 on groceries! They filled the belts 3 times! As I made my way out of the store, with a few more groceries than usual, but not stockpiling for Armageddon, I noticed the mostly-empty box for local foodbank donations. It dawned on me: here we are as a society filling our carts with more than we will probably need (and may in fact not need at all) while many people are going hungry. My suspicions were confirmed when I asked Arnold to reach out to the Flamborough Food Bank and see what their donations are like. It was not surprising to discover that donations are down.
One thing I find intriguing about this COVID-19 pandemic and its effects is that it is striking at the very heart of the things we take for granted in our affluent Western culture: sports and leisure, travel, and convenience (read ‘getting the best product for the lowest price’). Deep down I think we know that we generally act in self-interested ways, but try to numb that feeling by continuously ‘amusing ourselves to death’ to use the title of Neil Postman’s popular book on the evolution of entertainment with the dawn of television. Within a few days, that has all been violently stripped away from us and we are left sitting around staring at each other wondering what we are going to do with our time. But, in reality, we don’t have it that bad at all.
What of the single mother who now has to scramble to find childcare so that she can go to work while her kids are off school for another two weeks? What of the mobility-restricted senior on a tight pension who makes frequent use of the Food Bank who is afraid to go out for fear of being exposed to COVID-19? What of those who live in nations whose health-care system cannot cope with the care demands in the face of this pandemic when our own, one of the best in the world, is already testing its capacity with a relatively small number of confirmed cases?
So the decision now is upon us: will we hunker down and protect ourselves from an illness that for most of us will be a minor inconvenience or find ways to share the love of Christ with the world? Will we be irresponsible citizens by putting ourselves and others at risk by refusing to bow to social pressure to suspend gatherings, or will we show the compassion of Christ and care for the vulnerable by not putting people at risk unnecessarily.
When Martin Luther, great father of the Reformation, was confronted by similar questions in the face of the Bubonic Plague (a much more deadly disease than COVID-19), he had the following to say:
“What would you do if it was Jesus?” … This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running… If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbour close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him…”
We must be responsible, but we cannot shrink in fear. We must be compassionate, and we cannot take unnecessary risks. We must always remember in all of this to care ‘for the least of these’ and not allow self-interest to rule the day in our decision making.
Look for ways to see and find Christ in these times. God is in control, and for that reason alone we have nothing to fear.
 See, for example, this article from The Trumpet: https://www.thetrumpet.com/22001-coronavirus-and-other-modern-plagues-in-prophecy