"Because we're faithful Muslims, we won't be effected by this disease," was the perspective of several of our neighbors... in the days before Iran became the second most impacted country and more and more cases are being reported locally. Now people go about their business with a mix of concern and helpless resignation to whatever fate may be coming. Their helplessness, in the face of massive global action and expenditure, is what stays with me as we consider the best ways to respond.
As the world takes action to stop the spread of COVID-19, now a global pandemic, it's right for us as Christians to reflect deeply on our response--not primarily a political, medical or philosophical one, but a practical response which considers what God's perspective may be, and what Christ is calling his body to. A number of good pieces have been written that are theologically and Biblically orienting, such as this interview with John Piper reminding us of the judgement and mercy of God and the gospel in the midst of global suffering. From our small corner of the world, I want to add some observations about the disproportional impact on the world's poor, which I pray moves us toward mercy, prayer, and risky love.
In short, much of what is being proposed from a prevention standpoint will have little or no application or effect in much of the developing world, where governments, medical infrastructure and economic realities do not provide margin to offset, respond to, or stay the flow of the crisis.
About a billion of the world's population live in slums: often packed living conditions with poor sanitation and air quality. For these families, isolation of sick members is nearly impossible. Viruses in these settings will infect majorities. Billions more rely on daily labor wages rather than fixed salaries, and a day out of work means nothing to put on the table. Without reliable electricity and internet, and with little systems or automation in place, working from home is not an option. They will continue to pile into overloaded buses to commute to work sites, virus or no virus. They can't expect government bail-outs to cushion the effects. Yes, precautionary measures are often a wealthy society's privilege. They inconvenience us, and they raise death tolls in the third world. An estimated 25,000 people die every day of hunger and malnutrition. So far around 8000 have died of the corona-virus globally. This number is of course expected to rise, but very possibly, more people have died and will die because of closed borders, higher costs of basic commodities, and reduced wages resulting from preemptive reactions to the virus. In our setting, we see these consequences at work, and have opportunity to sympathize with neighbors, friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ. The drop in stock markets aren't their concern; rather how to keep surviving when survival just got a lot harder.
I don't write these things in order to induce wealth- guilt, or to suggest that anyone's suffering is insignificant. Nor do I suggest recklessness, or failing to take advice and restrictions seriously. This would be another form of selfishness, not considering the effects of our actions on others.
But I hope in these days that the church around the world becomes known again by a reputation it has often had during times of crisis and plague -- being the hands and feet of Christ to deliver faith, hope and love to the hurting and the sick. For examples of how the church has moved to meet needs during pandemics, see this article.
This is a moment where we face decisions at the big and small level which really come down to this: Will we move toward suffering, or away from it? In these moments we witness both, and have the opportunity to join either. There has been plenty of retreating, fear-mongering, finger-pointing, complaining and suspicion of others. Will we be the ones willing to visit the sick, lay our hands on them, pray for their healing, staff clinics and isolation centers, be welcoming to the rejected, and share the truth about Jesus to those whose hearts have been suddenly opened by the fragility of life? If wisdom requires isolating from others, will our retreating be done out of selfishness, or joyful self-giving, counting others more significant than ourselves, making use of extra time to hit our knees in loving intercession for a world in crisis? The church is uniquely ready to do this because we have a perfect love (in the sense that it is God's love having its fulfillment realized in us) that drives out fear. That love is motivated by an assurance--an ultimate and eternal assurance which massively reorients our lives on this earth--that Christ has borne our sickness and carried our suffering (Isaiah 53:4).
We are thinking through these things in our setting. What about yours?