By Mike Burnard and Andrew Richards
Words have the power to change the way we understand and relate to the world. The coronavirus outbreak serves as a timely reminder that the use of words can either strengthen hope, or place entire populations in fear. It either gives life or drains life, there is never a neutral exchange.
The words used to describe the COVID-19 coronavirus – its communicability and the risk of death – have caused widespread fear and uncertainty. For Christians, who find their hope in Christ, the outbreak of the virus should be seen as an opportunity. There should always be an awareness of what God is doing, and how the Kingdom can grow as a direct result of our response to challenges, like this virus.
Christians, however, are not immune to the power of words. Consider the following words used in a recent article by Associated Press (emphasis provided by author).
With deaths spiking in Iran and Italy and infections spreading quickly through Europe, the Mideast and the Americas, countries were considering new drastic measures to curb the new coronavirus that first emerged in China. WHO said about 3.4% of people infected with the COVID-19 virus globally have died, making it more fatal than the common flu. Death rates in outbreaks are likely to skew higher early on as health officials focus on finding severe and fatal cases, missing most milder cases.
The word choice might not seem reckless in describing what has now become a global pandemic, but it has a direct effect on the reader. Dr Jack Schafer, a behavioural analyst for the FBI, says that words cannot change reality, but they can change how people perceive reality. Words create filters through which people view the world around them.
It is with these filters – created by words that form perceptions – that has seen the COVID-19 virus isolate entire cities, cancel airline routes, crash stock markets and even place a worldwide suspicion on anyone from China. The coronavirus has killed more than 3,600 people, the vast majority in mainland China. There are now more than 106,000 cases globally, with infections in more than 100 countries and territories. Words have power, but they cannot change facts. They can, however, change the way we understand those facts, and they can be used to encourage those who hear the facts not to fear. What is lacking from the mainstream media is a Christian perspective able to do just that.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 is a coronavirus, which is a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), kidney failure and even death.
COMPARISONS (FLU VS COVID-19)
Ironically, the virus causing the most deaths might not necessarily be the deadliest in nature. As of 22 February 2020, in the US alone (in the current winter season) there were at least 32 million cases of flu, 310,000 hospitalisations and 18,000 flu-related deaths. COVID-19, as of 8 March, has 106,000 infections, resulting in 3,600 deaths worldwide (the majority in mainland China where the virus was first detected). There is no doubt that the flu virus is causing more deaths than the COVID-19 coronavirus.
But global fears are not based on reality alone, but perceived reality. In this case, the coronavirus seems more deadly than the flu virus. The coronavirus seems to be 20 times more deadly than the flu virus — so far. But even a disease with a relatively low death rate can take a huge toll if enormous numbers of people catch it. On average, seasonal flu strains kill about 0.1% (1 out of every 1,000 people) of people who become infected. The current percentage for the coronavirus death rate is around 3.4% (34 out of every 1,000). Based on these figures, it appears that the coronavirus is deadlier than the common flu.
By comparison, the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak had a much higher fatality rate of 50%, followed by MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) with 34%, Smallpox with 30% and the SARS virus (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) with 9.6%.
Another factor to consider when dealing with a virus of this nature is its communicability (how contagious it is). Each person with the seasonal flu appears to infect roughly 1.3 other people. This means that 1,000 people with flu have the capability of infecting 1,300 other people. To date, the new coronavirus seems to be more contagious than most strains of the flu, and appears to infect 2.2 other people, on average. This means a 1,000 people with the Corona virus have the capability to infect 2,200 other people – nearly double that of flu. Comparing the communicability of the coronavirus to other infectious diseases, you are more likely to get Measles, Smallpox or SARS.
Although the actual COVID-19 virus is not a hoax, there are currently over 66 different hoaxes doing the rounds on social media, that claim either insider information to the “real death rate” of the virus, predictions made in 1981 or seemingly proving facts that the virus was actually planned as a means to make money, control population growth and even as a biochemical weapon intended for warfare.
Hoaxes concerning viruses is nothing new. In 2019 a YouGov poll found that 16% of respondents in Spain believed that HIV was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organisation. And 27% of French and 12% of British respondents were convinced that “the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public”. Although the YouGov poll is not a hoax, it does reveal how many people believe in hoaxes.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
When it comes to conspiracy theories, and why people believe in them, Snopes, a well-regarded, fact-checking website (a good reference for sorting out myths and rumours on the internet), explains that research shows that conspiracy theories have a tendency to arise in response to moments of crisis in society – like terrorist attacks, rapid political changes or economic crisis. Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. These are the same conditions produced by a virus outbreaks, which explains the spread of conspiracy theories in relation to the latest coronavirus. One conspiracy theory proposes that the coronavirus is actually a bioweapon engineered by the CIA as a way to wage war on China. Others are convinced that the UK and US governments introduced the coronavirus as a way to make money from a potential vaccine.
Snopes warns of the severe consequences in believing hoaxes and medical conspiracy theories, saying that people who endorse conspiracy theories about the coronavirus may be less likely to follow health advice like frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap, or self-isolating after visiting at-risk areas. Instead, these people may be more likely to have negative attitudes towards preventative behaviour or use dangerous alternatives as treatments. The spread of medical conspiracy theories can also have severe consequences for other sections of society. For example, during the ‘Black Death’ in Europe, Jews were scapegoated as responsible for the pandemic. These conspiracy theories led to violent attacks and massacres of Jewish communities all over Europe. The outbreak of the coronavirus has led to a worldwide increase in racist attacks targeting East Asians, or those of East Asian descent.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Christians are not immune to the effect words have on the way we view what is happening around the world. Christians are also vulnerable to hoaxes. Believing, even for a second, in hoaxes and conspiracy theories stems from a need to be able to make sense of something we have no control over, like the coronavirus. For Christians, however, the fact that God is in control establishes a foundation from where uncertainties can be dealt with, and words can be used to build up and encourage, rather than stoking fear. There is much to be learnt from brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter where they live in the world. And it’s encouraging to see how pertinent and relevant Scripture is, no matter the circumstances. This has been so true for the current Covid-19 coronavirus crisis in China. INcontext has received extensive feedback from numerous contacts, from the ‘underground’ church in China, as well as Chinese missionaries living and working in other nations (who maintain close links to their churches back home in China). The general consensus appears to be that this virus outbreak is an opportunity for the Church in China to reach out to those who do not yet know Christ.
Danger and opportunity
Pastor Dennis Balcombe of Revival Christian Church in Hong Kong explains: “The Chinese characters for ‘crisis’ are 危機, pronounced ‘wei-ji’. The first character means danger, and the second is opportunity. Through the danger to life itself from the COVID-19 virus, the Church has an opportunity through prayer and gifts of healing to bring healing to the sick, and to preach the Gospel.” He went on to say: “We are all quoting and standing on the promise of Ps 91:5-6: ‘You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, Nor of the arrow that flies by day, Nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness Nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday’.”
Another co-worker of INcontext reported as follows: “So we, like much of the Church in China, are experiencing the hand—the purifying and the blessing of God—during this time. The Christians in Wuhan have been renewed and have risen up to preach the gospel and hand out a (free though precious) mask with a tract to passers-by, risking their own health (but wearing protective suits and equipment) to be a blessing; and how as a result Christians in Wuhan, who until recently were looked down on and persecuted perhaps more than in other places in China, are now looked on as messengers of hope in the midst of despair, even by some officials. According to what I read from one house church leader, the entire view of Christians there has changed. The Church is rising up to be what Jesus intended!”
There are, however, two dangers when facing challenges like the coronavirus outbreak. Firstly, we rationalise. As Christians we need to be cautious not to rationalise the pain of others. In Hebrews 13:3 we are called to remember those in prison AS IF we were in prison with them. It is irrelevant what disease is the deadliest. We should weep with those that weep and show solidarity with those who suffer. The pain and suffering currently being experienced in Wuhan, China and many other regions should stir believers into action, not rationalising. May God forbid that we ever measure involvement according to the magnitude of the problem.
The second danger is that we conspire. So many Christians, and even some prominent teachers, seek to link some kind of conspiracy to the coronavirus. It seems like if we can link a tragedy to a conspiracy, we exempt ourselves from expressing any empathy. It is far easier to pass on messages of suspicion than messages of solidarity. The one response demands only contempt and the other one action. Heaven weeps and some negotiate whether people deserve compassion or not. We need to stop posting theories and rather post prayers. We have to change our thinking. The Kingdom of God embraces souls, not theories.
No, the coronavirus is not a money-making-scheme. No, it does not come from bats. No, China is not killing its own people. No, it’s not a conspiracy. No, it does not come from bubble-wrap. Yes, people are dying and Heaven weeps. Yes, there is an unparalleled outcry of pain from those who are trapped in death, fear, and loss. We have a mandate to clothe ourselves with compassion and weep with heaven. Colossians 3:12 says: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
Follow the lead of others (extract from Christianity Today 30 January)
In the 16th century, German Christians asked theologian Martin Luther for a response to the question of whether followers of Jesus have a right to flee an epidemic when people are suffering and dying? It was 1527, less than 200 years after the ‘Black Death’ killed almost half the population of Europe, and the plague had re-emerged in Luther’s own town of Wittenberg and neighbouring cities. In Luther’s letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” he weighs the responsibilities of ordinary citizens during epidemic or plague. His advice serves as a practical guide for Christians confronting infectious disease outbreaks today.
He argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee, and he did not limit tending the sick to health care professionals. He challenged Christians to see opportunities to tend to the sick as tending to Christ himself (Matt. 25:41–46). Out of love for God emerges the practice of love for one’s neighbour.
But Luther did not encourage his readers to expose themselves recklessly to danger and he defended public health measures such as quarantines and seeking medical attention when available. He ultimately tasked “devout Christians … to come to their own decision and conclusion” whether to flee or to stay during plagues, trusting that they will arrive at a faithful decision through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. He stressed that participation in aiding the sick arises out of grace, not obligation.
Luther himself was not afraid. Despite his university colleagues encouraging him to leave, he stayed behind to minister to the sick and dying. He urged his readers not to be afraid of “some small boil” in the service of neighbours.
In an open letter calling for prayer from Christians around the globe, an anonymous Wuhan pastor affirms “[Christ’s] peace is not to remove us from disaster and death, but rather to have peace in the midst of disaster and death, because Christ has already overcome these things.” Both Luther and the Wuhan pastor express the reality of suffering but recognise that death and suffering do not have the final word.
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