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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 happening in New York. They have 30,000 cases, so far, rising by around 5,000 a day. The New York hospitals have 4,000 ventilators. The governor reckons they will soon need 30,000 as the number of cases keeps rocketing up.

3. Be Practical

We need to make plans for ourselves and our families and our churches, and reinforce the good public health advice we are all getting. It’s surprising how many people (especially older people and teenagers) aren’t taking it seriously. It can be the difference between life and death. It’s very strange to suspend Sunday services and all sorts of weeknight activities. Be creative! And remember that we may need to avoid most actual meetings for months to come.

1. As you know, the top healthcare advice is keep washing your hands, for at least 20 seconds, which is longer than you think. Some people advise every 30 minutes, or every two hours – just keep doing it even if they get chapped. Hand sanitizer, if you can get it, is almost as good as soap And water. Don’t forget to clean your mobile every time you wash your hands (obviously!). And use Dettol or some other powerful disinfectant on kitchen and bathroom surfaces and light switches and door handles far more often than seems normal.

2. “Social distancing” seems weird at first, but you soon get used to not kissing/hugging/handshaking. Just nod or namaste and stand back. It really makes a difference. In New York they’ve just tracked 50 separate cases to one lawyer who did not realize he was infected.

3. There is a special problem with older people and/or those with a chronic condition, as they account for most of those who are being killed by the disease. They need to keep themselves as far away from everyone else as they can. One practical point: don’t let kids visit their grandparents, especially if they’re 70+. For reasons we don’t know, kids get the virus in a mild form – they likely don’t even feel sick (so far there’s not been one death of an under-10), but they can spread it like the plague.

4. No panic buying, but you should certainly do some prudence buying! Stock up for a week or two or a month if you can. Even if you don’t get quarantined, which you may, you might not want to be out shopping as the numbers explode.

5. Think about the older people in your fellowship – and in your town – who are far safer staying in their homes, as well as those who are younger but have immune-deficiency or other conditions. How can you help? Shopping? Calls? The church is the world’s greatest volunteer organization. It may never have had a better opportunity.

4. Think, pray, and teach about death

Above all, as our lives and plans get upended and we face the possibility of many deaths, we should take this opportunity to reflect on what really matters.

When did you last preach a sermon on death, or hear one? On eternal life, on heaven and hell? One reason believers in earlier times – the 19th century and before - were a lot more focused on these issues was that death intruded much more into their lives. That’s rare for us now, or it was. Many families lost little children to infectious diseases, and of course many adults died at ages we would now consider shockingly young. The Coronavirus seems to be being kind to little children, whose symptoms are generally very mild – though that means they can be infected and spread the disease without anyone realizing. And while it’s especially cruel to the elderly and chronic sick, we’ve all seen awful stories in the press of healthy, younger people – late teens, twenties, thirties – becoming terribly ill and dying.

It’s a good time to start talking very openly about death. We know it will one day come to us all. We’re being given a dramatic reminder that it can come at any time

Teach us to number our days,     that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)


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