The 2020 Plague: A brief briefing for Christian leaders

Nigel Cameron

President Emeritus, Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies

Washington, DC

Senior Fellow, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa; Fulbright Visiting Research Chair, University of Ottawa, 2015-16

Professor Cameron has written extensively on healthcare, ethics, and technology. His books include The New Medicine: Life and Death After Hippocrates, Will Robots Take Your Job? and The Robots are Coming: Us, Them, and God.

Christians aren’t surprised when bad things happen. We wrestle with how God can allow them, and we plead with him to save us from them, but that’s nothing new. Just read the Psalms and the Book of Job.

As the Coronavirus spreads, one thing is clear: the next few months, and perhaps the next few years, will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes. I’ve been thinking of the stories my parents and grandparents told about how life changed during the Second World War. All of a sudden, everything is different. And we’re facing the biggest challenge since the 1940s.

So what are Christian leaders to do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Get the facts and think

By “get the facts” I don’t just mean read the newspapers. As a leader you need to know the story behind the front pages. I know you’re not an epidemiologist or a virologist. Neither am I. But as responsible believers – and especially Christian leaders – we need to get their brains around as much as we can. Set aside some serious time to get behind the headlines.

Here are some pointers.

If you want to know more about what a “pandemic” is - a worldwide disease epidemic - and how pandemics work, look at this helpful website.

Watch and recommend and discuss the 2011 film Contagion, which is well-regarded by the experts and generally realistic in the picture it gives of something not unlike the Coronavirus pandemic. One way the story cuts a corners, mind you, is that the vaccine turns up quicker than it’s likely to for us.

Read John Barry’s terrific (and terrifying) book about the “Spanish flu” that ravaged the world at the end of the First World War. In The Great Influenza he tells the story of the deadly virus that swept the planet in 1918. It infected around a quarter of the UK population, and out of an estimated 50-100 million deaths worldwide it killed 228,000 people in this country alone.

Coronavirus isn’t flu, but it’s very like a terrible kind of flu. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top American expert – he’s head of the U.S. Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases – recently said it is at least ten times more deadly.

I’d also recommend two serious pieces that will get you thinking, both just published in the past few days. Again: read, circulate, discuss. This article in the U.S. magazine Atlantic asks the question how this may all end, and discusses several possible scenarios. If you’re open to a heavier read, the Crisis Group, which advises governments and companies, has put out this list of seven trends to watch as the crisis unfolds around the world. I found these two articles really helpful. My point is: get really well informed about what’s happening. Most people don’t bother. You should.

2. Keep an eye on what’s happening

You should also keep an eye on what’s happening around the world – both the spread of the disease and, perhaps more important, the steps various governments have taken in response. For the latest numbers, the website Worldometers is key, and also the remarkable maps and other materials put together by Johns Hopkins, the U.S. university.

As you will know, today, March 26, the UK has 9,529 cases; 465 people have died. Check out comparisons. Just two weeks ago, on March 12, there were only 460 UK cases – and just eight deaths. Italy had just about those same March 12 UK numbers on February 25. Today, Italy has more than 74,386 cases; and 7,503 people have died (including one of the country’s top Coronavirus experts). In response the Italian government basically closed the country down, and the UK has now been following suit. Different countries are taking somewhat different approaches, and not everyone agrees how best to proceed. But we’re all facing the same threat.

Nothing like these shutdowns has ever happened before. And the sober fact what we have to remember is: this disease has no cure, and it will likely be at least a year, probably longer, before we come up with a vaccine. How do we keep the economy going while keeping the disease at bay and treating people – and working on a vaccine? That’s the challenge facing governments worldwide.

Antibiotics don’t work on viruses, and we don’t have an anti-viral that does. Be careful if you hear about “miracle cures” or “very promising” new drugs – at best they are based on anecdotes rather than research. People love wishful thinking.

One reason for the UK government’s speedy action is that we face some special problems. As the New York Times recently reported, the NHS has far fewer critical care beds than many other countries. It’s second to bottom of the list for Europe (the U.S. has actually seven times as many, per person). There are many wonderful things about the NHS, but it gets a lot less money than the equivalent systems in other advanced European economies. The facts of this disease are grim. The virus tends to kill people slowly, and it does so partly by giving them pneumonia. So the crunch question for every health system is going to be providing critical care, mainly for the elderly, on a far bigger scale than they have before. The UK government like others is scrambling to find the equipment and staff needed.

Angela Merkel, the German leader known for her plain speaking, has stated that two-thirds of Germans may get the disease. (She’s in voluntary quarantine at the moment.) If it spreads right through our populations, as many experts expect, the key priority is to slow it down – so health systems can gear up and then cope with cases over a longer period. A sudden spike in cases will also spike the proportion of deaths as there just won’t be hospital beds and specialists and ventilators enough for everyone. If you want to see how that can play out – in the richest city in the world’s richest country – just track what’s