Loving Our Neighbors During a Corona Virus Outbreak

We live in trying and interesting times. In the midst of enormous political and social polarization in the United States, we are now dealing with the announcement of a global pandemic. The reactions have ranged from virtual panic and hoarding of toilet paper to mocking and distrust.

Yesterday, a group of people I gather with once a month under the auspices of Reasons to Believe, a ministry that blends science and faith. We were live with Anjeanette (AJ) Roberts, who is a research scholar with RTB.

Timing was perfect. AJ is a virologist. She studies viruses for a living. She was one of the small group of people who studied the SARS virus in the early 2000’s at the National Institute of Health. SARS is a coronavirus, the same type of virus as COVID-19, the one we are dealing with now. She was on the ground floor of dealing with SARS, so she is in a unique position to provide wisdom and guidance.

I took notes as best I could yesterday and will pass on what I was able to capture in them. The facts are the facts, but how we respond to them is more important than the facts, themselves. As Christians, we need to be guided by the commands of our Lord to love one another, to love our neighbors.

Politics has a way of creeping into and tainting everything. We should not allow politics to color the facts or affect how we follow the clear direction of Scripture. Jesus is the way and the truth. We should not ignore truth in favor of political agendas or deviate from the way, which involves taking up our crosses and following Jesus, loving others as He demonstrated his love for us.

With that said, which is my paraphrasing of the guidance AJ Roberts gave us at the end of her presentation on the current state of COVID-19 in the world and in the US, I will summarize the facts she presented as best I can recall them. It’s important to note that the landscape is rapidly changing as the virus spreads around the world and in the US. In fact, she said the situation is changing on a daily and even an hourly basis.

When we spoke yesterday, March 14th, AJ put up a screen from John Hopkins with a graphic showing the 138 regions of the world reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases on March 13th, just the day before. Yesterday, one day later, the number of regions reporting positive cases was 147. That’s how fast the virus is spreading. (On the 16th, it stands at 155 regions.)

The virus is concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere, which is to be expected, as it is the virus/flu season in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s concerning, though, that the virus is turning up all over the Southern Hemisphere. AJ said that people are watching that development closely because it shouldn’t be spreading there.

If the virus spreads in the Southern Hemisphere, we need to take note and be prepared for a long fight with this virus. It may wane somewhat in the spring and summer months, only to return with a vengeance in the fall.

One challenge is that we don’t know where COVID-19 originated. We have faced viruses that originated in civets, chickens, pigs and camels, but we don’t know the originating host of this one. In those other outbreaks, China (and other Asian countries where these things originate) took aggressive measures to destroy the host animals, but don’t know where this one originates.

This virus is also unusually hardy. It can survive for 5 days or more outside a host body (unlike a flu virus that might last 24 hours). It also has a long incubation period. Flu symptoms start withing 24 hours of infection. COVID-19 symptoms typically don’t appear for five (5) days, and it could remain dormant for up to 14 days! These are legitimate causes for concern.

This isn’t a flu. For one thing, the biology is completely different. The flu is passed on almost exclusively through respiratory droplets. COVID-19 is passed on the same way, but it is also passed on through bodily fluids. It is much more contagious.

More significantly, the mortality rate of the flu is about .1%. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is 3% or more on average. That is 30 times higher than the flu!

That is the global average. The mortality rate goes up exponentially from age 50 to 60 years old, and from 60 to 70, and then again from 70 to 80. People with compromised autoimmune systems and respiratory symptoms are also at greater risk. If we are going to love our neighbors, healthy people should be careful not for our own sakes, but for the sake of the vulnerable people in our communities.

Mortality rates also differ from area to area. In Korea, for example, the mortality is “only” 6 times higher than the flu, but the mortality rate in Italy 60 times that of the flu!

The hot spots right now are Italy and western Europe. The worst is yet to come for us in the US.

Though it hasn’t been reported much in the news, the flu season has been a particularly bad one this year. At the height of the flu season (in January), 400 deaths a week were reported. If we consider the global average for rate of infection and mortality rate, she estimates we will experience 12,000-16,000 deaths a week with COVID-19. If we experience mortality rates on a par with Italy, it will be double that.

The bottom line is that AJ Roberts doesn’t think we are overreacting to this threat. She worked on the first coronavirus (SARS). It was a very difficult virus to “kill”. She described the protocol they had to follow in the lab to prevent infection, and it was “extreme”.

SARS only spread to 30 countries. COVID-19 has already spread to 147 countries, and we are still counting!

If we are going to respond as Jesus instructs, by loving our neighbors, we will take this threat seriously and cooperate with the suggestions and instructions given us by people in the know. So, what can we do?

AJ relies on the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and John Hopkins, among others. Getting information from good, reliable sources is critical. There’s a lot of misinformation out there causing confusion, and we shouldn’t be contributing to that confusion.

Beyond that, AJ Roberts provides some wise advice, starting with the admonition not to panic. Of all people, followers of Jesus should trust God and not worry about tomorrow. God knows every hair on our heads. Though we live in a world dominated by sin and death, this outbreak hasn’t caught God by surprise.

Without panicking or contributing to the anxiety that others feel, we should take this threat seriously, even if we aren’t particularly at risk. Most people might be healthy enough to survive infection, but the vulnerable people around may not. Minimizing participation in large gatherings and minimizing contact with other people is appropriate. A person can have COVID-19 for up to as many as 14 days without knowing it. (The average is about 5 days.)

Most commercial hand sanitizers are too diluted to kill the virus. Soap and water is best. AJ Roberts suggested washing to a lather for 30 seconds. She says that 20 seconds is good, but most people cut corners, so go with 30. Lather up, scrub your hands and get under the fingernails.

Wiping surfaces with 5% to 10% bleach and water is also good practice. Wipe it on; let it dry; then wipe it off. Every other day is probably sufficient. (You don’t need to make gallons at a time, as it breaks down in 24-36 hours. One spray bottle at a time is good.)

AJ says we will NOT be able to stop the spread of this virus, but we can slow it down. The reason that large gatherings are being shut down, and people are being asked to practice “social distancing”, is to slow the spread of the virus so that our health care system isn’t overwhelmed as it inevitably spreads. (For a good article that explains how this works, see Why Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Spread Exponentially, and How to “Flatten the Curve”)

As the outbreak gets into full swing avoid hospitals and health care providers unless you have an emergency. Our health care system is going to be severely taxed.

AJ says that simple things like getting enough sleep, avoiding stress, eating right and practicing good hygiene will all help. The virus is deadly for people who aren’t in good health. Living a healthy lifestyle is always a good idea.

Obviously, if you have symptoms, stay away from people! Symptoms include a fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. If you have difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion or inability to arouse and/or bluish lips or face, seek immediate medial attention.

Some people will be able to ride out the virus without medical attention, but people whose symptoms become acute should not hesitate to seek help.

We need to be smart about this. Getting “political” doesn’t really help. It only stirs up unnecessary angst. Please resist the urge. Our conversation should always be gracious, in good times and bad. Love your neighbor, and even your “enemy”. These are sounds words regardless of the times or circumstances.

Finally, I will leave you with this gem from Martin Luther during a plague that happened in his day:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Luther’s Works; Vol. 43, pg. 132

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