What to make of the Coronavirus?

Editorial note: Why did I choose to write about the coronavirus? Honestly, part of it was processing my own heart and emotions as I see the headlines, track the spread, and anticipate the future. I've had to put my own heart in check, submit to Christ's commands regarding anxiety, and direct myself back to trusting the Lord through uncertain times. This is the fruit of that. I hope it is helpful.

Stats/Maps: [A] [B] [C]


The Novel Coronavirus; aka 2019-nCoV; aka SARS-CoV-2; aka COVID-19.

A rose by any other name, amirite?

Many people have said many things regarding the new disease that is exploding across the world. Despite exponential growth in multiple nations, as of this writing, there are still some who are hesitant to label this a pandemic. It is my belief that this will change soon, and it will be globally recognized as a pandemic in the coming days or weeks. I’ve kept a pretty close eye on this for around a month now, and it’s fascinating to read the different responses, predictions, and conspiracy theories from various sectors of the internet.

While I have taken some level of entertainment at the extremes of all the responses I’ve seen (downplaying, exaggerating, etc.), I’ve wanted to operate on the basis of data-driven facts and reasonable extrapolation, rather than knee-jerk reactions to headlines. Here is what I’m seeing: 

What we know

This is not the common flu. I’ve heard many pundits say that this novel coronavirus is nothing worse than the seasonal flu that rears its head every year. With the data we have available, anyone making such claims is simply being irresponsible as that claim is demonstrably false as anyone willing to take an honest look at the data will have to concede.

Because we are still relatively early on with this new virus, it is nearly impossible to accurately say “this is the mortality rate” though the data we have right now makes it clear that it is significantly higher than that of seasonal influenza. I’ve been seeing stats that say anything from 3% (by dividing total deaths with total confirmed cases) and 6% (by dividing the total deaths from the total number of cases for which we know the outcome (recovered + died)). However, both these numbers are almost certainly high because there are likely many who have had mild cases that are not being counted, and there are still tens of thousands of cases for which we do not yet know the outcome. But even if the mortality rate is as low as 1%, that is still 10 times higher than the mortality rate of the common flu, which generally sits around 0.1%[1]  A 1% mortality rate may not sound high, but when millions are infected the number will be high, even if the percentage is low.

This is not SARS. SARS—though vastly more deadly than COVID-19—after initially striking fear into global hearts, proved to be relatively easily containable because it could only spread once symptoms appeared; simply isolate those with symptoms, and the disease sputtered out. COVID-19, on the other hand, has a very long incubation period (2-14 days, with some cases as long as 27 days) and can be spread during this incubation time, making it significantly more difficult, if not impossible, to contain. SARS only infected a little over 8,000 people. COVID-19 shot past that number weeks ago and is likely to continue to climb.

Compared to other diseases. COVID-19 is significantly outpacing two of the more concerning outbreaks (SARS, and H1N1, aka the swine flu) that have occurred in recent years as the chart below demonstrates (this chart is updated regularly which you can access here):


H1N1 ended up infecting an estimated 60 million people in the U.S., and as many as an estimated 1.4 billion globally so to see COVID-19 outpacing that at this early stage is worth noting. (H1N1 had a mortality rate of 0.01-0.08%, or as low as 1/10th that of the seasonal flu)

On the bright side, this new virus is nowhere near as deadly as the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918, which infected an estimated 500 million, and killed 40-50 million, and maybe as many as 100 million, for a mortality rate somewhere between 10 and 20%.

Case Severity and Overloaded Hospitals. 82% of reported active cases are considered “mild”, which leaves 18% to be labeled as “serious or critical.” As with many illnesses, this virus takes a harder toll on the elderly and those with other health conditions, and most of the deaths fall into those demographics.

I’ve read many people who look at those numbers and dismissively say, “82% of people have mild cases, and people are worried about this thing??” While those numbers might not seem concerning on their face, when a city of a few hundred thousand—or a few million—people gets hit, and you’re looking at tens of thousands of cases, the concern is the hospitals and health care systems begin to get overwhelmed, and the ability to adequately care for these patients goes waaaaay down, not to mention caring for all the “normal” emergencies that need immediate attention, like heart attacks or traumatic injuries from automobile accidents, etc. Therefore it’s of little surprise that the mortality rate within the city of Wuhan is significantly higher than that in other areas where the population density is lower. China responded rapidly to this virus by building temporary hospitals in as little as ten days (!) because its existing hospitals were not adequate to properly care for those infected. Without those hospitals, the mortality rate is likely to have been much higher.

Exponential Growth. One of the harder things for us to wrap our minds around is the concept of exponential growth. When things start doubling, the numbers don't seem that alarming. But then suddenly things start to explode rapidly. Check out this video (~9min) for a simple explanation of this in relation to epidemics, and this thread (which led to this article) for what this potentially means practically in our health care systems.

Economics. Another angle of concern is the impact on the global economy that is simply swimming (or rather drowning) in debt. For a reference point, it is estimated that the SARS outbreak (that only had ~8,000 cases) set the global economy back anywhere from 30-100 billion USD. That was back in 2003, when the US, and the world for that matter, were significantly less economically dependent upon China. China is now a much bigger player, and the supply chains have already suffered significant disruptions. This can only be assumed to worsen as more countries face quarantines and lockdowns in an effort to contain this virus.

There’s also the issue of panic buying. While there is certainly some wisdom in stocking up on essentials, there comes a point when people begin to react out of fear rather than act on wisdom and you end up with cases of people hoarding supplies, stories of armed robbery for toilet paper and pictures reminiscent of Black Friday, except its food and water instead of TVs and game consoles. This has also created a face mask shortage for health care workers and home improvement stores have sold out of all kinds of masks. Coming soon to a store near you.

As the storm was brewing abroad, the U.S. seemed to be dodging a bullet as the only cases that were here were directly related to travel to China or the Diamond Princess. But now more cases are being diagnosed; community spread has started and may have been going on for a while. Buckle up; it could be a bumpy ride.

While a variety of factors may lead to slowing this thing down (favorable mutation, vaccine, warmer weather of spring/summer, etc.), we have enough data right now to say that this virus isn’t going away any time soon, it’s going to claim many lives, and it’s going to have a significant economic impact.

What’s my point?

Many might read the above and be driven to anxiety, and it's exactly that kind of response that I want to address. I just spent a bit of time with ample documentation to say that we have what they call a situation on our hands, and while I do want people to take the data for what it is and act appropriately to be prepared, I am more concerned with our hearts and our actions toward others in times of public fear.

The question therefore before us is, how should Christians respond?

Even if this particular outbreak eventually sputters out in a similar fashion to SARS, the question of how Christians should respond to pandemics, or other catastrophes in general, is worth considering. Not only must we guard ourselves against getting swept up in the hysteria, but we also must be prepared to dialogue with others about the foundational issues. There will inevitably be many conversations taking place between Christians and non-Christians, and the non-Christians will want to know why this is happening. They will have fears that can only be ultimately addressed with the hope of the Gospel. Will we be prepared to give hope? Will we be able to articulate how a good and loving God could allow such suffering in the world? Will we be able to stand when the world around us crumbles? Will we have joy even as our own loved ones are taken from us by such things?

The rest of this article is intended to help Christians respond biblically to things like pandemics and answer some of the pressing questions that may be in our own hearts and are certainly in the hearts of those in the world.


Is This God’s Judgment?

The short answer to that question is simply “I don’t know.” It very well could be. But all the same, since we are a little lacking in the credible prophet department these days, we do not have a direct word from God that says “For this and that I bring this disease upon you” Amos style.
But what if it is? Should that surprise us? A disease that started in China and has already had significant economic impact could very well be God’s judgment on that nation for a variety of national sins. The one-child policy that led to over 336 million abortions (including forced abortions and the forced sterilization of millions), the alarming level of persecution against Christians, the mistreatment of ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, the crackdown on dissenting voices, protesters, and activists, and a whole host of other things that leads to a very loaded “etc., etc., etc.”, etc. The communist government has rejected their creator, usurped and abused authority, forsaken the proper role of government, and has led countless millions to share in their sins. If the coronavirus was God’s judgment against that nation, should we be surprised?

Maybe it’s easy to think about this being God’s judgment on them over there. But what about at home? We don’t yet know how severe things will be here. I could be that in a few short weeks or months we could have death tolls in the thousands and cases in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. If that were to happen, would that be God’s judgment? Again, I must say “I don’t know.”

But what if it is? Should that surprise us? When our nation murders thousands of babies per day and over 63 million since Roe v. Wade in ’73, sanctions and celebrates various forms of immorality, drowns us, our children, and our grandchildren in national debt, and seeks to add the designated hitter to the national league, etc., etc., etc. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t count as a national sin, but still…) The U.S. government has largely rejected the creator, usurped and abused authority, forsaken the proper role of government, and led countless millions to share in their sins. If this coronavirus was God’s judgment against this nation, should we be surprised?

And it’s easy for Christians to sit back, shake our heads, wag our fingers, and make comments about “those people” who are corrupting American minds, meanwhile we have spent years doing nothing except sitting back, shaking our heads and wagging our fingers. Parents have failed to pass along the faith once for all delivered to the saints to their children, Pastors have failed to demonstrate how God’s Word speaks to our cultural moments, our politics, our policies, etc. Christians by and large have failed to go into the marketplace and speak truth into the public square. We have bought into lies that lead us to believe that we are to leave our religion at home when we go to work, discuss politics, or seek education, etc. And I’m not just talking about the evangelicals’ favorite talking points of abortion and sexual immorality, as important as those things are. We have failed to consistently apply God’s Word to the issue of the national debt, to the issue of the God-given role of government by allowing our government to leave that realm and take on greater and greater degrees of authority and control over our lives and resources, to the issues of the great miscarriages of justice within our courts, to a whole host of other things that lead to a very loaded, “etc., etc., etc.” Where is the Christian voice in the face of all this? Not only are these things present, but many of us voted for them.

But then there are those that didn’t vote. I’ve heard pundits say that if all of America’s so-called evangelicals simply turned out to vote, they would win every election. I’ve not been able to verify the veracity of that claim, and quite frankly I have my doubt about how many truly biblically-minded evangelicals there really are in this nation, but if that is true, what are we doing?

So if God were to judge this nation, should that surprise us? We certainly deserve it.

Again, I do not know if the coronavirus is God’s judgment. But whether it is, or it isn’t, we as a nation must repent. We as Christians must repent for allowing these things to take place on our watch, for not speaking into the culture what the Word of God has to say on any given issue. It is a sword after all, and sharper than any man-made sword ever crafted. Let’s use it.


Consequences of Living in a Sin-Cursed World

Since we cannot say definitively that this is God’s judgment, we must also entertain the idea of “what if it’s not?” How do we understand evil, pain, and suffering that is not directly tied to the righteous judgment of God for specific sins?

To understand this, we must understand how sin entered the world and its impact on creation. For those who have been Christians or had exposure to the Bible for any length of time, this will not be new information. But it is helpful to rehearse it as we are sure to hear people ask, “why all this suffering?”

The answer to that question takes us back to the first three chapters of Genesis. God created the world in perfect innocence. No sin. No suffering. No disease. No death. He created man in His own image, meaning that mankind resembles God in unique ways that set him apart from the rest of creation, and mankind is to be God’s representatives on earth, having dominion over all creation.

But then man chose to rebel against his creator. The proper order of creation authority was reversed. Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and death spread to all mankind, for all have sinned (Rom 5:12).

The corrupting influence of sin was felt across all sectors of creation. All of creation fell under the curse of sin and now groans as it awaits the day the Lord returns and sets all things back in order (Romans 8:18-25). Until then, hardship, pain, suffering, disease, and death are all regular features in our lives on this earth. Thus, we have the coronavirus; because of the curse of sin, creation is subject to disease and death. Sin has consequences, and those consequences have ripple effects (that at times feel more like tidal waves) that roll across time and impact people for generations.

God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-good. For many, this means that He ought to eradicate such suffering. However, holding such suppositions puts you into the judgment seat over the God who made you. Not a wise line of reasoning. The reality is that because God is who He is, He uses the pain and suffering of this world to remind us of the wretchedness of our own sin, show us our own mortality, and drive us back to him. Just like when we discipline our own children when they do what is wrong to remind them of the consequences of sin, so too the suffering of this world reminds us of the consequences of sin and our dependence upon God for our every breath. Our response should be one of grief and repentance, not one of accusation which only adds sin upon sin.

Fear Not; Be Anxious for Nothing

When we stare into the face of a global pandemic, its only natural that fear and anxiety begin to grow. We are talking about a potentially severe illness and many deaths, after all. But fear and anxiety are inappropriate response for Christians. Here’s why:

“God in His love always wills what is best for us. In His wisdom He always knows what is best, and in His sovereignty He has the power to bring it about.”[2]

Let’s break this down.

God is Perfect in His Love. We have the assurances of Scripture that we are loved by God and that He always desires to work all things together for our good and His glory. This is what he wants for us.

God is Infinite in His Wisdom. Though God may want what is best for us, does he actually know what is best? Yes! He most certainly does! His wisdom exceeds that of the wisest man, as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than our ways, oh the breadth and the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God, how unsearchable are His ways! Not only does God want what is best for us, He knows what is best for us! Sometimes that path is a difficult one. Sometimes what is best may not feel like it is the best. But God’s wisdom exceeds our own.

God is Completely Sovereign. This means that He is in control. There is nothing that takes Him by surprise, there is nothing that has ever happened, or ever will happen, that is outside of His command. He raises kings up and sets them down, He brings pestilence and disease and sends them away, He causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine, He is in charge of it all. Even the coronavirus. So not only does he want what is best for us and knows what is best for us, but he also has the power to bring it about, and He does.

If we truly believe this to be true about God, then there is no basis for fear or anxiety. Why would I fear what God has sovereignly ordained for my good? Why would I allow myself to become crippled by anxiety by that which God intends to use for His glory? I should confidently say with the Apostle Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

The reality is that every time fear, worry, and anxiety rear their ugly heads due to the events that the Sovereign Lord has brought into our lives, that reveals something about the condition of our own hearts and what we believe about God. It demonstrates that we are not trusting the God who has proven Himself to be infinitely trustworthy; we are either doubting His love, His wisdom, or His sovereignty. Considering how many times the Bible speaks to our fears and anxieties and seeks to drive us to dependence on the Lord, when we find those things creeping in we must repent of that sin. Is anxiety keeping you up at night? Repent and fling yourself upon the loving, wise, sovereign God. Is fear driving you to hoard resources you really don’t need? Repent and be willing to share those resources with others.

Remind Yourself of What is True. We are a people who are so prone to forget what God has done, so prone to forget who God is, and so prone to forget what is true. Many times throughout that pages of Scripture we are called to remember, and Paul and Peter both wrote at times with the purpose of reminding the readers of information they were previously taught. When we find ourselves in moments of uncertainty, we would do well to take the time to review what is certain. God wills what is best, He knows what is best, He is able to bring that about, and He does. That’s true even when it doesn’t feel like it, so we must remind ourselves of that often.

Opportunities to Show Christ’s Love

One of the amazing things about hard times like these is it gives Christians opportunities to practically show the world the love of Christ. Throughout history, many Christians have caught diseases and have died simply because they were the ones who were willing to put themselves in harm's ways for the sake of serving and caring for others. From the plagues in the first few centuries of the church, to the black death, to more modern diseases such as Ebola, and even to the novel coronavirus in China, Christians have consistently shown up and put their own lives on the line in order to serve others. We may very well have similar opportunities to serve and minister to those in need, and it may indeed cost us something significant, ever our very lives. Will you be willing to step up to the plate and follow the example of those who have gone before you?

Opportunity for the Gospel

In times like these, we are faced with the reality of our own mortality. If we survive COVID-19, we will eventually die of something else. This can be a powerful moment to really get the good news of the Gospel out to people who are so desperately in need of hope. While it is inappropriate for Christians to fear things like the coronavirus, it is only natural and I would even say right for non-Christians to be afraid. They should be afraid of the prospect of standing before the thrice-holy judge of the universe and having to give an account of their sins which will lead to them enduring the wrath of God for all eternity. Their fear of death is evidence that they know God exists and that they are accountable to him. We have an opportunity to help them understand how to live without fear: repent and place your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.

Conclusion

We have no way of knowing how bad this particular outbreak will end up being. Right now we live in a unique cultural moment where fear is high; it would be inappropriate for Christians to join the hysteria. Be prepared; be wise; but don’t succumb to fear. Be ready to give an answer when someone asks about the hope that is in you. Help people understand why bad things happen. Help them grasp how they too can have hope. Be ready to help those in need, to share food and resources, to risk infection, to face death.

If you’ve made all the way through this, I’m impressed. Even my sermons don’t run this long. I hope this was helpful for you and I’d be interested in your feedback. Drop me a note below.

Be blessed; be a blessing




[1] I’m finding this number practically everywhere, but have struggled to find an actual medical source for this number.
[2] I don’t know who said it first, but Jerry Bridges quoted this in his book Trusting God

Comments

  1. I made it all the way to the end! Thank you for taking the time to write this. It gives me much to ponder.

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