Do you recall using phrases like “physical distancing,” “self-isolating,” or “flattening the curve,” before February 2020? Yet they are in common use today. COVID-19 has made a remarkable imprint on our lives and possibly our culture for years to come.
However, epidemics and pandemics are not new to our world, nor is the church’s response to them. Vivian Nutton, a historian of medicine, writes that from the 14th to 18th centuries, “A town would experience an epidemic of plague approximately every decade, and a serious devastation once in every generation.
Mass disease outbreaks were part of people’s lives for all recorded history. The outbreak caused by the bubonic plague had a fatality rate of 60-90%. The Black Death started in October 1347 in Sicily and over the years spread, killing almost one-third of Europe’s population — more than 20 million people. The COVID-19 fatality rate is approximately 1-3%.
Some Christians responded to these devastations with “flight theologies,” exploring what might be a Christian’s responsibility: to help the sick or flee a diseased town. The great reformer, Martin Luther, shared his thoughts in a letter to a pastor, Johann Hess. Hess had asked the question, “…is it proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague?” Hess had to write twice before getting an answer, as Luther had been too ill to reply to the first letter. Luther had also lost family members and friends, including some of his own children, to sickness.
What Would Luther Do?
In 1527 a plague hit Wittenberg, the town where Luther lived and taught at the university. While classes were wisely moved to an unaffected town, Luther refused to leave. He chose instead to care for the sick, and he and his wife, Katherina, transformed their home into a hospital. His advice was tempered by the fear and potential consequence that the disease might take him. For Luther, response to the epidemic was an occasion to exercise faith and turn from sin, namely one of our chief sins, selfishness, that turns first to self and then to the health and safety of others. Luther regarded the epidemic as a time of temptation that would test and prove our faith and love. He wrote, “…our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbour.”
Luther calls on Christians in 2020 to resist the temptation to flee, and instead contribute to the physical and spiritual care of those in our community who are most vulnerable, sick, self-isolating or dying. In a time without widespread institutional healthcare, Luther called Christians to a divine obligation to fill the gap.
The Christian’s Response
Today we have extraordinary healthcare measures available for the sick, however the vast majority of us do not have special training to participate on the medical front lines. In fact, we should not show unnecessary heroics and become infected, thus becoming part of the problem, so what should be a Christian’s response to COVID-19?
Respond to Accurate Information
Do not believe the hysteria on social media and be careful of mass misinformation from journalists. For Christians, truth is uniquely important. Each of us have a responsibility to find and rely on accurate sources of information. Dismiss sensational, hysterical, or manipulative news sources.
Listen to our public health experts. Inevitably their recommendations will not be perfect (this virus is an evolving news story), but they will give us the best counsel to follow toward long-term safety.
Practice physical-distancing and self-isolate when necessary. We must all participate in flattening the epidemic curve of this spreading virus. No health system in the world will be able to handle a massive influx of sick patients. In Canada, many hospitals are already operating near 100% capacity, with most of their beds in use. There are not enough respirators to go around, and doctors throughout the world are having to make the heartbreaking choices about who is to receive scarce resources. Lives may be lost because we chose to go on an unnecessary errand, or trip, and spread the virus.
My wife, a retired registered nurse, was recently contacted by the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA). They requested that she reapply for active RN status in the event she is needed for hospital duty during the growing pandemic. Name me one other occasion when this has happened in Canadian history? Possibly not since WWII.
Respond with Compassion and Prayer
Lastly, we are called to exercise compassion to the sick and needy and pray for our authorities as they steward this unprecedented time in our history. May the Lord show his mercy. May the church shine brightly. May many turn to God for comfort, peace and hope.