“And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’s span?” Luke 12:25
When disasters or catastrophe strike, whether in our personal lives or the nation’s shared life – and they do come – our perspective and our faith, become the two most reliable and essential assets we have.
Perspective is one key to wisdom. It’s the ability to see things in the context of one’s years and what we have experienced and the lessons learned. It’s to see the whole, not just a fragment of what happens around us.
Historical perspective polishes our personal experience. It gives us a grounded sense of how the world works and reacts and allows us to learn vicariously through the pathways etched over time by others.
Faith, or lack of it, constructs character. It allows the wise person to see the grander canvas of individual and corporate life and inspires the soul. It evaluates purpose and opens a doorway to the eternal.
Today’s disaster that has paralyzed much of the world is in the form, ironically, of the ancient coronavirus, named after the crown-like projections coming from its surface. It’s a family of respiratory viruses found in animals and humans alike, seven of which infect humans. The newest strain, now known as COVID-19, originated in and around Wuhan, a city of eleven million people in central China at the end of last year.
However, it is just the latest pandemic, and it will not be the last. Viruses and diseases have ravaged the world from the beginning of recorded history. Epidemics and infectious plagues have been described in every ancient culture, chronicled in the Bible, and other contemporaneous records for thousands of years.
We live in a fallen world at war with us.
The flea-borne plague ravaged the Roman world, as far away as England, in a 541 A.D. outbreak and recurrent outbreaks for another 200 years. Roman records documented the devastation, and perhaps 25% of the population of the Roman Empire died.
The same plague, caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is believed to have traveled the Silk Road from China into the Near East and on to Europe, igniting the Black Plague that took perhaps one-half or more of the population beginning in 1347. Its effects rippled throughout the world for hundreds of years.
Only 100 years ago, near the close of the First World War in 1918, a virulent strain of the H1N1 influenza virus, which came to be known as the Spanish Flu, infected somewhere between 25 or 30 percent of the world’s total population. The staggering death toll, although the exact number will never be known, is estimated to have been 20 to 100 million. Over 500,000 died in the United States alone.
The worldwide pandemic finally exhausted itself in the summer of 1919, as its hosts either died or developed an immunity.
The conditions for the spread of the disease at the close of the war were perfect. Tens of thousands of soldiers were coming and going on jammed- packed rail and ship transportation systems, with the worst conditions imaginable on the battlefields, and passing through filthy and overcrowded conditions in the towns and cities. And antibiotics were a war away from discovery. It was the perfect Petri dish for the worst pandemic in modern human history.
The H1N1 virus, in the same subtype with the Spanish Flu, would make another appearance worldwide just eleven years ago in 2009 with the Swine Flu. The first U.S. cases came into the country from Mexico in 2009 and spread from San Diego, California eastward. In 2010, the Center for Disease Control would report that 60 million Americans had been infected, with 265,000 hospitalized, and 11,690 died.
In between all of these outbreaks, there has been SARS, MERS, and Ebola, among other pathogens.
These serial outbreaks are always on top of the traditional seasonal influenza season that occurs worldwide every year. In the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, 15,000 additional deaths were due to the seasonal flu. A typical flu season in the U.S. takes 15,000 lives. This year, sadly, will be no different.
None of this means we shouldn’t take unusual precautions with COVID-19, nor underestimate its potential danger. It should be managed with the energy and alarm it deserves – and it seems that is the case. It’s a new strain of an old adversary, and technically, no one is immune, nor is there yet a vaccine.
But, it does mean that we shouldn’t be irrationally risk-averse, either.
Life, all life, in this world, is fragile and fleeting. As a society, we understand that there are risks for just living, and not one of us escapes death. Cancer and heart disease take millions of our loved ones a year; vehicle accidents randomly take 40,000 men, women, and children of all ages a year. The list is a very long one.
We do our fellow citizens no service when we encourage hyper-emotionalism and panic to capture our daily life. Nor is there value when we pretend that this one event is the worst that can happen to us.
Instead of loving our neighbor, it more often makes us fear him.
Yet, it is what we reap when we remove perspective and faith from our educational and cultural DNA. In a post-pandemic moment, it is an item for our culture’s “to-do” list.