When I first heard about the coronavirus, I wasn’t worried. It was happening in China, far from home, and probably wasn’t a big deal there, anyway. Remember Ebola and the swine flu? Case in point. It was never a big deal, at least not close to home. If it came up in conversation, it was probably a joke. A coworker would sneeze, and someone would say, “Oh boy, you probably have Ebola.” And we’d all laugh.
We tend to assume the future will be like the past—or at least the past we remember. We aren’t used to being worried about the rapid spread of a viral disease. That’s the kind of thing you read about in a novel or happens in a backward country that doesn’t have good doctors. So I assumed that even if COVID-19 got bad in China, it probably wouldn’t hit us here.
Then a few weeks ago, it started getting closer to home. But it still didn’t seem serious. “Come on, isn’t the media overreacting?” And we all laughed at the stupidity of the rush to buy toilet paper. The coronavirus was coming closer to home, meaning every other joke we heard was made at its expense. How could people be so clueless and worried about something that obviously isn’t a big deal? More people have died from the common flu! Plus, this came from China, and things from China don’t last. (Really funny, isn’t it?)
I don’t know about you, but I’m not laughing anymore. A couple nights ago, I went out for coffee with a friend. The first two places we tried were closed. My favorite local coffee shop is taking down its tables. So much for that. Long-anticipated events have been cancelled. I’m worried I won’t be able to visit my brother in NYC before he comes home in May. As spring comes, I’d love to visit Longwood Gardens. But now they’re shut down. (They assured me they’ll share the beauty of the gardens with me on social media. Not comforting.) I’m trying to make plans for my summer, but everything is so tentative now. All these things are indirect consequences, though, assuming the coronavirus doesn’t hit close friends and family. Best case scenario, my spring has been heavily disrupted and everything returns to normal before summer. But at this point, life as we know it is up in the air.
Maybe you think this is all a huge overreaction. The whole world is shutting down over a minor flu, you say. Every day it gets harder to make that case, though; the death rate is rising too rapidly.¹ The assumptions we make bother me. How do we know it’s not a big deal? Governmental leaders and health professionals are taking this seriously on a global scale and we want to sit back and act like we know better? It’s okay to have a hunch that this will all get cleaned up neatly without devastating results. But we don’t really know that much about COVID-19. It’s new. Maybe it’s less serious than some think. The only safe position to take is that we don’t really know. We do know thousands have died and it could get worse. Hopefully it doesn’t. But again, we don’t know where this is going to end.
So what is the responsible, Christian reaction? At a time when the world is experiencing significant upheaval, it’s crucial that we respond appropriately. This is a time of opportunity for Christians. In the midst of confusion, we can demonstrate peace in God that stands out to the lost around us. Here are a few points we should consider.
1. We shouldn’t be surprised by the virus
Jesus tells us not to be troubled by rumors of calamities. Why? It’s not because such things won’t happen. It’s because they will, but we will be saved if we endure to the end.² We’re specifically told that there will be plagues before the end. Biblically speaking, we should expect such global crises. This is why I’m a bit confused when Christians are reluctant to admit COVID-19 might be a big deal. Most of us include an expectation of difficulty before the end as part of our theology. Are we going to miss it when it starts affecting us?
2. Fear and precaution are not the same thing
We know God has not given us a spirit of fear.³ We don’t need to panic. But this doesn’t mean that we shrug things off. There is nothing spiritual about thinking, “Well, I don’t need to walk in fear, so why would I need to worry about shaking hands with others? God is bigger than COVID-19.” He certainly is. But we also know that shaking hands spreads the virus. Proper sanitary measures can effectively check its spread.⁴ So why would we deliberately act in ways that could make the pandemic worse?
3. We are to respect those in authority
Even if you don’t think COVID-19 is a big deal, the government does—probably for good reason. International measures are being taken to keep the virus under control. Do we want to have a reputation for being the last people to comply? The world is not going to be impressed by people that ignore medical warnings.
4. We need to love our neighbor
People ask me if I’m afraid of COVID-19 myself. Not particularly—although I can think of things I’d rather do than be stranded in bed with a high fever for days. But that’s not the right question. My carelessness could result in COVID-19 being spread to others. What might be merely annoying for me could be fatal for those around me, particularly the elderly and those already suffering. That’s not something I want to be responsible for. Our first obligation isn’t to our own health but to that of others.
If you’re anything like me, you’d like to wake up tomorrow and have everything be back to normal. But as history is being made, let’s utilize the moment. Right now that might not mean increasing our interaction with the lost—at least if it means violating quarantine measures! But we can certainly pray. This is a time to be spiritually alert. We, of all people, should be the least surprised by what is going on. We should also be the least terrified. But we shouldn’t be any less careful.
² Matthew 24:6-8
³ II Timothy 1:7