Responding Theologically to the Coronavirus Epidemic
Let me just say up front that I am not a medical professional so read what I write here with that in mind. Please do not quibble over terms like “epidemic” versus “pandemic,” etc. Thank you for that.
Over the last week (March 8 through March 13, 2020) it has become clear that 1) the world is facing a disease crisis that some medical experts are calling a pandemic, and 2) many people are reacting with great fear and even panic. Here in the U.S. numerous educational systems and institutions are temporarily closing and many are moving class sessions to online formats for the indefinite future. Here in the U.S. there are serious shortages of hygiene products including, in some locations, a total absence of toilet paper, anti-bacterial cleaning products, etc.
Here in the U.S. the new phrase is “social distancing.” In general it means avoiding unnecessary physical proximity to everyone—for a time—in order to lessen the spread of the virus. People can be infected from four to ten days before symptoms appear and during that time they are capable of spreading the infection to others.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
This week, which happens to coincide with a week off of work, I have spent many hours reading reliable sources on the internet, seeking the best information and advice from capable, credentialed, informed medical leaders. I have also spoken with many people whose daily lives are being affected by the epidemic—including some who fall well within the “especially vulnerable” categories.
It is my considered opinion that to stem the spread of this virus infection we in the U.S. need to practice excellent and unusually precautious hygiene including not shaking hands with people. As a Christian theologian I am suggesting to church professionals that they cancel church events while strongly urging members to continue to support the churches financially and with prayer. Those that can live stream their services should do so.
At the very least, members and attenders should be encouraged to stay away from church events insofar as they are physically vulnerable (e.g., weakened immune system) and/or suspect they may have come into contact with people who are infected.
Theologically, I will say that this is further evidence that we live in a broken world “in bondage to decay” that needs God’s saving power in every sense, but Christians should not wait for ultimate salvation (Romans 8) to act wisely and helpfully now. The key is to limit the spread of the disease and churches can play an important role in that.
Ethically, I will say that laws should be passed criminalizing “price gouging” by businesses that hike prices of products to profit from this crisis. I have heard reports of such happening.
Now, on a more personal note, while I do not minimize this crisis or in any way undermine efforts to minimize it, I have lived long enough to remember similar events that caused widespread and perhaps unnecessary panic responses. (Here I refer for example to the strange response of stockpiling toilet paper so that there is literally none left to buy anywhere in many places.) I lived through the polio epidemic and crisis of the 1950s and was unable to take swimming lessons at our local public swimming pool. As an adult I once lived in a house on a block where a special concrete sidewalk ran through all the backyards with gates in all the fences. I was told it was built by the homeowners in the 1950s to keep children from playing together on the sidewalks in front of the houses. These were all smart responses and, fortunately, the epidemic eventually went away and people went back to living their normal lives.
I also remember the Y2K panic of 1999. People stockpiled non-perishable foods in their houses such that there were empty shelves in many grocery stores—for a brief time. I consider that to have been a not so smart response. Many top experts were telling the public that their worst fears (e.g., of not being able to use credit cards or access their bank accounts) were groundless. The silence from the fear-mongers after the turn of the century/millennium was deafening.
This case, the corona virus epidemic, calls for cautious but serious efforts to stem its rise and spread—as happened with the polio epidemic of the 1950s.
Personally, I will be practicing social distancing for a while. If you see me, please do not be offended if I decline to shake your hand. Let’s wave at each other while keeping our distance. Do not expect to see me in: church, movie theaters, concerts, crowded spaces. There will be a few exceptions where I have to fulfill commitments related to travel and speaking, but I will be keeping these to those already made and unavoidable. I do not fault or blame anyone who chooses to continue social life as normal; that is a choice with risks. But my hopefully wise advise is to do as we did in the 1950s with the polio epidemic and try our best to stem the spread of this disease. Experts I have read (and who are trustworthy epidemiologists) suggest that if everyone practiced social distancing for one month it could make a huge difference in the outcome of the course of this health crisis.
I will end this admittedly discouraging blog post with something hopefully uplifting. When I was a kid in church we sang “God is still on the throne and he never forsaketh his own; his promise is true, he will not forsake you. God is still on the throne.” Something to remember in difficult times like these.
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