Maybe… Maybe not… Maybe… But maybe not.
On balance, I think not. As I write this, 23 people in the UK have been diagnosed with the Coronavirus, or to give it its proper name, Covid-19.
By the time you read these words, it’s possible that it will have gone the way of previous news stories that have brought anxiety for a while, but proved less dramatic than anticipated. Anyone remember the Millennium Bug, for example? Or the scare that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK would be affected by Mad Cow Disease (or vCJD – which remains a horrific disease for the limited numbers who do contract it)?
So maybe the story of Covid-19 will likewise dissipate. But maybe not. And I suspect not. So if the situation does indeed worsen, how might we respond?
1. Learn from history
It’s interesting – reading about the Black Death (which was much more serious, of course), I was fascinated to learn that many scholars think it originated in China and then spread in Europe via an initial outbreak in Italy. That pattern has a disconcerting parallel with Coronavirus. But we should also be warned from history. ‘Christians massacred Jews in Germany and other parts of the world where Jews lived, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately,’ wrote Jean de Venette, a French Carmelite friar who recorded reaction to the disease. How awful. It was easy to make Jewish people scapegoats – just as some Chinese and South Korean people in the UK have reported some degree of hostility towards them.
And in his own bizarre way, Donald Trump has sought to make Democrats and news channel CNN in the US both scapegoats for what he has called (at the time of writing) a ‘hoax’ in relation to fears about the virus.
But I hope we would know better than anything like that. Blaming others isn’t really going to help anyone.
2. Learn from Scripture
Primarily, of course, we learn from Scripture. And the words of Jesus about ‘earthquakes… famines and pestilences’ come to mind, together with his call for ‘patient endurance’ in such situations and the assurance that (metaphorically at least) not a hair of our head will perish – even though physically we may die. So we do not need to panic, even if Covid-19 spreads in such a way that we naturally feel like doing so.
We recall also Jesus’ words when questioned about one disaster of His day – and His response referring to the collapse of a tower at Siloam which had killed 18 people. ‘Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,’ Jesus tells them.
Preaching in 1988 on that passage in relation to the AIDS epidemic, John Piper said: ‘Sin is an infinitely more dangerous disease than AIDS. And if the world is willing to spend millions and millions of dollars to wake this country up to its danger of AIDS, how much more should we, who know the cure, spend whatever it costs to wake [people] up to the danger of sin!’
If society takes Covid-19 as a serious threat and takes appropriate measures accordingly, how much more should we as Christians take Jesus’ warnings about sin and judgement and hell seriously and make every effort to ensure people do not succumb to that fate!
3. Learn from Chinese Christians
The response of one Chinese pastor and his church at the heart of the outbreak, Hubei, was reported by the China Christian Daily. He said that his church had a three-day fast as the epidemic worsened, and that there were ‘special prayers’ every morning from 5am to 8am.
He added: ‘For those who have non-believer family members, we have compiled some gospel messages to help them better evangelise their families. In addition, we have been encouraging believers to get along with their families, and now since they have plenty of time to stay at home, they should spend time with them and make good testimonies.’
That’s love. Christian love. Love in the time of Coronavirus.
David Baker is Rector of East Dean Church