In the US, according to a recent survey, 38% of citizens would not buy a Corona beer because of concern about the Coronavirus. (It is probably not true, but it is still not good news for the Mexican brand.) More seriously, fears about the virus have led to ‘ political and economic instability… xenophobia and racism against people of Chinese and East Asian descent, and the spread of misinformation about the virus, primarily online.
So it is perhaps worth offering some sobering reflection, from a medical, psychological, historical and theological point of view.
Medical: Dr Fiona Head writes:
As a Christian doctor and public health medic I have been watching the church response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak with some concern. As you might expect, professionally, and more importantly personally, I am no stranger to infectious disease. Historically, over the ages, caring for people has always involved personal risk. At the beginning of my medical training at an old, established London Medical School, we were ushered into an ancient lecture theatre and told starkly that had we been sitting there 100 years ago a third of us would have been dead from TB before we qualified as doctors.
As it happened, by the time I had qualified and returned to work in the same hospital as a junior I had contracted TB—source uncertain, but most probably through exposure as a medical student. I went on to needlestick myself with blood from a highly infectious hepatitis patient, expose myself to measles whilst pregnant (the baby was fine) and I still at times develop viral infections that I suspect (but can’t prove) are related to patients I have seen in my GP work.
It’s a fact of life. People get sick. Sickness is often caused by bugs. If you spend time with people you may well catch their bugs as well. The more you care for people the more you are at risk of getting bugs.
We should obviously try to reduce the risk of infection. It’s important to protect people as far as humanly possible from the various risks they face as they go about their daily business. But each morning on my way to work I cycle past a picture of Li Wenliang on the pavement. Local Chinese people have surrounded his photo with flowers. Li Wenliang was a Christian, and a doctor. He died as a result of caring for people. What does being a Christian mean for each of us in this situation?
To be quite honest I find that the Church of England advice on coronavirus, issued initially on 13th February and revised on Tuesday (3rd March), is wide of the mark. A search on the (admittedly very small) academic literature on infection risks associated with communion reveals only one good study where the actual differences between sipping from a common cup and intinction are assessed in terms of the resultant microbial load. Whilst the risk of infection passing from person to person through sharing a common cup is very low overall, not surprisingly intinction produced less microbial load than sipping. I say “not surprisingly” as it is a much shorter pathway for a bug to hop from chest to spit to communion cup than for a bug to hop chest-spit-hands-bread-cup. The advice to avoid intinction as a way to reduce infection makes little scientific sense to me.
However, by focussing on decreased personal risk through an emphasis on the mode of communion we miss the point. The NHS is planning and preparing at speed for coronavirus but I am not hearing plans from our church on how to scale up our care for those who are already vulnerable, the elderly and the sick – the people who will be disproportionately affected by this virus.
I listened today to the Chief Scientific Adviser in a press conference with the Prime Minister exhorting us that “central to this we protect the vulnerable”. And the Chief Medical Officer encouraging national “extraordinary outbreaks of altruism”.
If I am hearing that from my secular leaders, why I am not hearing that from my church? Caring for people always involves risk. As we prepare for more cases of coronavirus, as a church do we need to re-examine our priorities?
Psychological: Dr Samuel Paul Veissière offered this challenging reflection on the real impact of the virus in Psychology Today.
Ask yourself the following: Would you feel confident taking an over-the-counter medication if you were 98 percent sure it would work safely? Would you dare to gamble all your savings in a one-off scheme in which you had a 98 percent chance of losing it all?
The coronavirus is a similar no-brainer. As a generic member of the human species, you have about the same odds of dying of the coronavirus as winning in the gambling scenario. These are overall rates, meaning that unless you are already in very poor health, are very old, or very young, the odds for you are much lower. Or next to nil.
Why then are so many countries implementing quarantine measures, shutting down their borders, schools, and soccer games for something that is less likely to happen to anyone than drowning in a single year, or even being hit by lightning in one’s lifetime? Why is the stock-market crashing, and why are school and workplace mass emails, news headlines, social media feeds, and face-to-face conversations dominated by stories about what is essentially a new strand of mild to moderate flu?
Our minds like to jump to threatening headlines with big, alarming numbers. As this post was first aired, a total of 80,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in 40 countries. To put things in perspective again, this is a mere 0.0001% of the world population. In comparison, seasonal outbreaks of influenza make 3 to 5 million people sick enough to seek treatment worldwide (up to 0.06% of the population) while many more cases go undetected. The seasonal flu results in 290,000 to 650,000 deaths each year — up to 0.008% of the population.
To grasp the full — and very real — power of the coronavirus, we need to enter the rabbit hole of evolved human psychology.
The coronavirus is quite simply, and almost exclusively, a moral panic. This is so in the most literal sense. Human bodies, minds, societies, systems of meaning, norms, and morality have co-evolved with pathogens. Determining who drove whom in this dark scenario is currently unclear.
To understand this strange dynamic, consider people’s blatant inability to make statistically correct inferences about actual risk in the current epidemic of catastrophizing about COVID-19. The human propensity to ignore basic probability, and our mind’s fondness for attending to ‘salient’ information is well-documented. The negativity bias is one of the most potent of such pre-programmed mental heuristics: Any cue that contains information about potential dangers and threats will jump to mind easily, will be easier to remember, and easier to pass on. In the lingo of cultural epidemiologists, we describe danger cues as possessing “high learnability, memorability, and teachability” — or high feed-forward potential in epidemics of ideas. There is a clear evolutionary advantage to this trait: We are better off over-interpreting rather than under-interpreting danger. In most cases, these instant associations work well. Cues that signal the presence of pathogens tend to elicit automatic disgust responses, so as to help us avoid dangers. Over time, we’ve also evolved the ability to react instantly to a range of visual and auditory cues that convey a high likelihood of pathogen presence. This is why most of us are grossed out by the presence of mice, rats, or bugs, or by the sound of sniffling…
The bad news for you is that, if you live in a densely populated area, you are very likely to contract the coronavirus — if not this year, next year, or the year after as it undergoes its seasonal global migration pattern with its zoonotic cousins.
The good news is that you will almost certainly not die from it, and it may not even register that you are slightly more sluggish than usual for a week or two. Much more relevant to the terrible threat caused by our Pathogen Overlords, you can prepare to fight the yearly Corona invasions to come by resisting your own neuroticism, your own prejudice, and your own irrationality. As far as numbers games are concerned, our Pathogen Overlords are much more noble, and much more worthy of our hatred than our fellow human pseudo-enemies in political, religious, and culture wars.
Historical: Candida Moss notes, in a 2014 article at CNN, the impact of plagues in the third-century Roman Empire.
Cyprian, the mid-third century bishop of Carthage, provides us with the most detailed description of the plague’s terrible effects. In his essay “De mortalitate” (“On Mortality”), Cyprian wrote:
“The intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; the eyes are on fire with the infected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction.”
In many cases, Cyprian went on to say, blindness and deafness would ensue.
At its height the epidemic is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in the city of Rome alone. Among them were two Roman emperors: Hostilian and Claudius II Gothic. The effects were just as extreme elsewhere in the empire. Sociologist Rodney Stark writes that as much as two-thirds of the population in Alexandria, Egypt, died.
Modern scientists may believe that the disease was smallpox, but to Cyprian it was a portent of the end of the world. Interestingly, this belief may have actually helped the spread of Christianity. Cyprian noted that Christians were also dying from the plague, but suggested that only non-Christians had anything to fear.
[In fact, Rodney Stark goes on to calculate the impact of plagues on the growth of Christian faith. Not only were pagans impressed by their courage and care, but Christians who got the plague were more likely to survive because their Christian relatives and friends stayed and cared for them, whilst pagans were abandoned.]
Theological: Church historian Eusebius recalls the response of Christians to the two plagues in Rome, according to the account of Dionysius:
The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death.
Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation; so that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of martyrdom.
And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments. And after a little they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them.
But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.
Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.22.7-10
So how should we respond? Wash your hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer as you do (it is better than singing ‘Happy birthday’ twice). Trust in God, care for the sick, and share your hope of life beyond death. Remember Ps 91:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
They say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you say, “The LORD is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.
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