Covid-19 can officially be added to the list of small things that have caused great upheaval. Since its onset, this tiny virus has not only attacked the health of over a hundred thousand people, causing thousands of deaths—it has also affected politics and economics, changed habits and lifestyles, and generated a flurry of emotions. As many other things today, it has easily infiltrated our political thought, causing discussions to become even more volatile.
It has been said that the way we respond to disasters (including epidemics) has to do with our values and views of life, death, and humanity. If so, Christians who draw their values and beliefs from God’s given revelation should respond in a distinctive way.
We know this. We know we should trust God and love our neighbor. As simple as it seems, the reality is often different and our knowledge is often difficult to translate in the appropriate actions.
A Serious Threat
The first, understandable reaction to Covid19 has been one of fear—intensified by the fact that there is much we don’t know. Can we prevent it? Why are some countries affected more seriously than others? Will the epidemic stop with warm weather? Are we really going to run out of toilet paper?
I had many of the same questions and was confused by the contradicting answers. I decided to believe the posts that told me that it was all hype, that China was a unique case, that the flu kills more people than coronavirus. I liked those posts. They made me feel safer.
Soon the Covid19 started to spread in Italy. I was scheduled to go for a couple of weeks and wondered what to do. People were reassuring me that it was not as bad as the media made it sound, and I stuck to my plans.
Then the virus became fast and furious. Suddenly, the numbers of infected Italians started to rise at incredible speed, reaching a daily increase of over 2000 cases, and a height of 350 deaths per day. At one point, the rate of mortality for the northern region of Lombardia exceeded 10%.
But this is not all. Italian doctors started to write passionate pleas, asking people to take it seriously. “This is not a simple flu,” they said. “The virus spreads much faster than the flu virus and the mortality is higher.” Hospitals are so full that they have to reopen old military facilities. The suffering is not just for older people. Even some young people are on respiratory machines. The supplies are not sufficient, and the medical personnel is getting infected.
Watching the people in my native country struggle against this strange disease convinced me of its seriousness. But then something strange happened. Instead of panicking, I found myself more level-headed and clearly focused on the Lord. Facing the facts helped me to see where my true comfort lies.
Many shared and are still sharing my initial dismissal of the seriousness of this threat. Italians had similar sentiments a few months ago. At the start of the epidemic, Milan created a lively spot entitled “Milan doesn’t stop.” At the sound of a catchy tune, the video shows inspiring images of Italians having fun, kissing, and going about their daily activities. “We perform miracles every day,” the spot says, “because we are not afraid.”
It is geared to make us say, “That’s me!” Just as we are instinctively drawn to hope for better things, we are naturally prone to admire courage and heroic gestures. We want to be brave and strong. In this context, fear becomes a weakness to avoid or at least conceal.
But the type of courage this video, as well as many articles and pep-talks, provides is rather an imperviousness, an undeterred insistence on minimizing the problems. And this type of blind courage—even when recast under Christian terminology (such as “trusting the Lord”) is not a biblical virtue. In the Bible, courage works closely with wisdom and love, and trust works closely with knowledge.
Biblical courage is often quiet and unassuming, relying on God’s promises, desperately depending on God’s grace, and working in obedience to God’s commandments for his glory and the welfare of our neighbor.
Loving Our Neighbor
In my experience, I found that focusing on the wellbeing of others rather than my own alleviates feelings of panic. I am prone to panic when I focus on myself, in spite of my conviction that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). It’s that strong, innate instinct for self-preservation. But when I focus on others and try to see what’s best for those around me, panic subsides. This might be one of the reasons why the Scriptures tell us that “there is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18).
How to love others is often the question. Social media can include practical ideas and food for thought, but it can also become distracting and detrimental. Arguments about the exact mortality rate of Covid19, for example, can distract us from our goal of loving our neighbor and from our true hope, which is Christ. They can also lead us to minimize other people’s pain.
The catechisms produced during and immediately after the Protestant Reformation provide good and concise definitions of love for others. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, teaches us “to protect [our neighbor] as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.” The Lutheran Catechism adds that we should “help and support [our neighbor] in every physical need.”
How do we do this? The Department of Health tells us that we should limit travels, conferences, and social gatherings that can favor the spread of virus and enhance hygienic measures. As much as we dislike these restrictions and this disruption of daily life, they are meant to protect our neighbor.
We can also stop treating the elderly as “dispensable” by saying or implying that, after all, they are the only ones at risk of dying. Most of all, we can try to point others to their only true comfort in life and in death – Jesus Christ with all the promises he has kept and those he will soon fulfil.
As Rev. Michael Brown, pastor of the Reformed Church Filadelfia in Milan, Italy, has recently reminded me, “as we respond to the outbreak with wisdom and love for our neighbors, we, as Christians, live in the confidence that Christ has delivered us from a far worse condition, namely, the curse of sin and the just wrath of God. In that confidence, and strengthened by his sufficient grace, we can rise to this occasion.”