And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’ ”And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” — Luke 10:25-29 NKJV
In the past few days, I have been shocked by how many expressions of the general sentiment, ‘Don’t worry about coronavirus, it is only bad for old people and people with underlying diseases’ I have seen. Partially I am shocked because it is such a naive view of the virus, but primarily because I have seen this coming from Christians. Christians, who are called to love their neighbor as themselves, and have evidently forgotten who the Bible calls their neighbor.
In this case, the neighbor who is seventy-five and has high blood pressure, the neighbor who is forty with type I diabetes, the neighbor who is twenty-five and has cystic fibrosis—in short anyone who truly has a significant risk of hospitalization and death if they catch this virus. They are your neighbors. Of course you shouldn’t be fearful or panic about the coronavirus, but you ought to start thinking about your neighbor.
I am a data scientist and a Christian, not in that order, and while I hope that the fatality rates are significantly overstated, it would be foolish to assume that at present. The reality, regardless of the real case fatality rate, is that when this virus spreads widely in a community, hospitals can’t keep up with the number of patients needing care.
That happened in Wuhan, that is happening in Lombardy now, and we should expect that to happen elsewhere. Hospitalization for coronavirus, when it happens, requires a significant amount of time per patient, and even with a trickle of new cases, can quickly saturate a hospital’s capacity. When that capacity is saturated, people who otherwise may have survived with adequate care die. Those people are your neighbors.
So how do you love your neighbor? If you are young and healthy, stop acting like getting this and transmitting this isn’t a big deal. It is to your immunocompromised neighbors, and you may not even know who they are. Giving it to them may land them in the hospital, and if a number of people in a community are carelessly spreading the virus, there may not be a bed for them. And while your personal risk of dying may be low, there is still a significant proportion of healthy people who still require hospitalization—do your best to not occupy a bed yourself. Only worrying about your own risk is a cardinal act of selfishness.
So how do you avoid getting and transmitting coronavirus? Given the nature of the virus, it isn’t just sufficient to stay home ‘if you aren’t feeling well’. Many people are either asymptomatic or have minor symptoms and still spread the virus. The only effective control of the virus that we have seen so far is isolation across a whole community where the virus is circulating. Be ready for that isolation. Have enough supplies to generally avoid contact with others for a few weeks. The CDC has recommended one to two weeks, but Italy is looking at four weeks of quarantine, and Germany is asking people to change their normal activities for the next three months.
By this sort of isolation or ‘social distancing’ as it has been termed, the virus has been slowed and mortality has been significantly lowered. Being prepared to stay at home, working from home, and canceling travel plans isn’t cowardice or ‘panic’. It is loving your neighbor, it is loving medical staff who will be caring for the critically ill, and it is protecting your community. There have been many articles lamenting and criticizing the effects of this sort of isolation on the economy, and while that effect is real, how does that compare to the life and well-being of your neighbor? Did the Samaritan in the parable consider his economic well-being to be more important than the life of the stranger?
The reality is that many if not most of us will get this virus and get better. If that happens to be you, praise the Lord, and be ready to be the hands and feet of your neighbor who may need to be in isolation for months if they are to avoid catching it. There are going to be a large number of people shut in over the next year who are going to need our help. Go ahead and take the time now to see if you have neighbors in your community who are at high risk and should be in stricter isolation in the coming weeks. Find out how you can serve them–buying groceries, running errands–so they can avoid exposure.
Finally, remember the coronavirus is the hand of God and not a random act of nature. When God punished Israel after David took the census in Israel, David chose a plague as the punishment and his words are striking: “Let us fall now into the hand of the Lord; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.” His mercies are indeed great, and we should seek His mercy to stay His hand and end this plague.
“Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”