More than 130,000 confirmed cases. Nearly 5,000 deaths. Entire countries on lockdown. Sporadic access to testing. And no vaccine. Such headlines recall the outlandish scenarios of science-fiction paperbacks, but right now they represent reality as coronavirus grips the world.

Unfortunately, responses to the pandemic also seem lifted from the pages of a sensational novel. Public reactions have veered from dismissiveness when the virus confined itself to other countries, to hoarding hand sanitizer and masks when it encroached on familiar shores. The stock market has crumbled, limping along at the worst performance in decades. Fights erupt at grocery stores over dwindling stocks of toilet paper. Even churches face strife in this highly charged atmosphere, as pastors who continue services withstand accusations of social irresponsibility, while those who cancel weather outcries about lack of faith.

The histrionics are more than just unseemly. Panic-buying depletes resource from the needy, and detracts focus from the real concern at hand, namely, how to protect those most vulnerable from COVID-19. It’s a question that troubles pastors across the United States, with those ministering in megachurches and those tucked away in the country equally struggling to discern how to shepherd their flocks through the crisis. It’s a question that cuts to the heart of Christian discipleship, as we seek to love one another as Jesus loved us (John 13:34–35).

Unless we think carefully about whom the coronavirus threatens, and respond out of love and not fear, it’s a question we risk getting horribly wrong.

Real Dangers

To understand why containment of the novel coronavirus has proved so challenging, think of COVID-19 as a common cold that targets the lungs. Coronaviruses aren’t new, and in fact they account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory infections globally. Chances are high that at some point in your life, your stuffy nose, sore throat, and dry cough—all a nuisance but rarely dangerous—arose thanks to a coronavirus.

COVID-19 is as contagious as any coronavirus that causes the common cold. We pass it easily through droplets when we sneeze or cough, even before we notice symptoms of illness. COVID-19 differs from other coronaviruses, however, because it targets the lungs instead of the nose and throat. This explains why most diagnosed people present with fever and cough, without the runny nose and sinus congestion you’d expect from a cold. It also explains why it jeopardizes health-care systems. COVID-19 is a highly communicable virus with the potential to cause pneumonia in numbers that overwhelm hospitals. Italy is living out this threat, with the sudden surge in cases stressing its facilities beyond their capacities.

And yet, most people with COVID-19 don’t get critically sick. Eighty percent of those with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19—and likely more who develop mild symptoms, but don’t seek testing—recover at home without incident. Overall, the mortality rate from this virus is 3 percent, higher than the flu, but multiples lower than that of the Ebola strain that has ravaged Africa. Children, in particular, seem to escape serious illness from COVID-19, a surprising divergence from the U-shaped distribution of illness—highest among the youngest and the oldest in the population—that we typically observe with infectious diseases.

Most of us pocketing hand sanitizer and clearing shelves of bread won’t need medical care for COVID-19. But in our panicked responses, we risk neglecting those who do.

Most of us pocketing hand sanitizer and clearing shelves of bread won’t need medical care for COVID-19. But in our panicked responses, we risk neglecting those who do. 

While the overall mortality from COVID-19 is relatively low, the risk of death dramatically rises among those advanced in age and living with chronic illnesses. Mortality shoots up to 15 percent among those older than 60 years of age, and after 80 years the death rate from COVID-19 rises to 22 percent. While the vast majority of the population, including children, will weather coronavirus infections from home, the elderly and infirmed face a high risk of death. Long-term care facilities and geriatricians recognize the dangers, have issued alerts, and recommend against social visits to nursing homes and assisted-living centers to protect those most vulnerable.

The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t which supplies to stockpile in preparation for an apocalypse, but rather how to support those at real risk for losing their lives to this swiftly moving disease.

Loving Our Neighbors

Loving our neighbors during this unsettling period requires we (1) limit the overwhelm on the medical system, so doctors can provide for the sickest, and (2) protect and support those most vulnerable to infection.

Tactics to reduce the health-care burden encompass those recommended by CDC and WHO to “flatten the curve.” As COVID-19 is so highly communicable, we can’t completely contain it. But we can slow its spread such that it doesn’t swamp hospitals and deprive patients of medical care. Many of these measures are common-sense preventative steps—washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice to time it), not touching your face, staying home when you feel unwell, keeping your distance from people who are sneezing, and so on. In communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases, more aggressive social distancing measures are wise, and Daniel Chin offers an excellent review of a stepwise, systematic approach to such efforts.

The question we should be asking ourselves isn’t which supplies to stockpile in preparation for an apocalypse, but rather how to support those at real risk for losing their lives to this swiftly moving disease. 

In addition, we should familiarize ourselves with CDC’s recommendations for people at high risk for infection, and ensure the vulnerable in our midst are safe and nurtured. Those for whom COVID-19 poses the greatest danger, are also those who commonly require help from others to manage daily life. CDC recommends that the elderly and chronically ill avoid crowds, close contact, and elective medical visits, but all these guidelines prove complicated when you require assistance with meals, wound care, or dialysis several times weekly.

As churches implement procedures to shield the elderly from illness, we should also remember to reach out to our brothers and sisters, to ensure they have systems in place for support that also limit their chances of infection. And if safety measures cut them off from the spiritual disciplines they hold dear, we need to connect regularly and often, by phone or internet, to remind them of Christ’s love during these trying days.

Ultimate Hope

Our hope rests not in fully stocked shelves and ample disinfectant, but in the saving blood of Christ, who gave his life so that one day all disease and pestilence will vanish from the earth (Rev. 21:4). As the headlines scroll across our screens, and anxiety mounts in our chests, let his love for us, rather than fear for ourselves, spur us to action.

Remember to wash your hands. Remember to stay home when you’re sick. And most of all, remember to do all this not out of panic, but out of love for your neighbor—the 80-year-old in the third pew, the nonagenarian in the choir, the transplant recipient at work—because Christ loved us first.

[March 14, 2020]