Note: This article has been edited to reflect the feedback of well-meaning counsellors on the original version. My thanks to them.
The Daily Diet
In recent weeks there has been no escape from the noise and impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. For those who donâ€™t already know, coronaviruses are common and co-exist in humans and animals around the world â€“ variants of which are responsible for the common cold. Infectious disease specialists view coronaviruses as producing typically minor infections/diseases of the respiratory tract which are often sub-clinical (i.e. without symptoms). Yet, as is apparent to all, this new variant has been fomenting fear around our interconnected world.
The appearance and spread of COVID-19 is understandably disturbing and, especially for the elderly who are weakened by advanced age or pre-existing conditions, potentially as tragic in outcome as other seasonal viruses â€“ that much is clear. The novelty of this particular strain means that uncertainty abounds and concurrently, widespread confusion and often contradictory information. Wildly diverse figures of disease (often undistinguished scientifically from infections) and frightening data regarding â€˜COVID 19 relatedâ€™ deaths are being pushed out over the airwaves that frequently differ so widely as to be almost meaningless for a general public who tend, by osmosis, to ingest a daily diet of media hysteria and sound bites. As a result, all around, peopleâ€™s hearts are failing them for fear and the impact on all our lives is being profoundly felt in Canada and much of the West, despite our advanced economies (Lk. 21:26). Equally disturbing amidst the frenzy, it seems to be a risky business to soberly query the dominant apocalyptic narratives or raise the matter of Godâ€™s hand in all this. Even posing questions can lead to accusations that you are careless, heartless, negligent or a â€˜denier.â€™ Well, so be itâ€¦
The Sovereignty of God
In critiquing this present situation, it is clearly important not to minimize or make light of the fear that people genuinely feel nor the loss some are experiencing, either from the virus itself, or indirectly by the gravity of the response to it. The loss of any life in this pandemic is tragic and it must be taken seriously. In view of this, my concern in this article is to do two things. First, reflect on what Scripture says about outbreaks of both disease and panic, and then consider and weigh the societal cost of the response in a measured and scripturally non-reductionist fashion. We are obligated to calmly ask, when drastic actions take hold now to mitigate the spread of this virus strain, what outcomes lie ahead for the sick, the poor, the unemployed, as well as the socially isolated? And what political and societal fallout might we be exposed to?
First, it is necessary to step back from the incessant media furore and, from a Christian standpoint, note what the Bible says about outbreaks of disease and peopleâ€™s response to God in the midst of trouble. If we start by asking if this virus â€“ originating from a wet market violating every clean and unclean distinction and dietary ordinance in Scripture â€“ is a blessing from the Lord on the nations, the answer is obviously not; though God is able to bless his people in the midst of it all.
Yet since, in the Christian worldview, all things are under the providence and sovereign hand of God who is active within history to bring about his righteous judgments, we can only see this outbreak and the panicked response as an aspect of Godâ€™s curse and covenantal sanctions (Deut. 27-28). As such, there are things to be learnt in this crisis for both Godâ€™s church and unbelievers. Only a sterile secularism, grounded in a radical reductionism which insists on seeing epidemics and the human response in purely biological and sociological terms, will fail to see the hand of God in this situation.
The Judgments of God
The Bible is actually replete with Godâ€™s warnings concerning disease and epidemics coming upon those who live in persistent rebellion and disobedience to God (Ex. 7-11; Deut. 28: 21,22,27; 2 Chron. 7:13; Ezek. 14:21; Amos 4:10; Rom. 1:27; Rev. 16:9; 18:8 etc.). Since God warns his own people (not just the Egyptians!) that he will bring corporate pestilence, affliction and disease upon them for their wickedness and rebellion (cf. Deut. 28), as Christians we are not immune from Godâ€™s judgment upon the nations for we are a real and indeed defining part of them (Matt. 5:13-16; 1 Pt. 4:17).
What is more, disease and epidemic are not the only form of corporate judgment in Scripture. Because of the reality of sin and evil, panic, confusion and madness frequently occur in response to Godâ€™s activity in history. The inspired Hebrew philosopher aptly describes the fallen human condition: â€œthe hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they liveâ€ (Eccl. 9:3). Because of this people are prone to respond to Godâ€™s works of judgment and self-revelation, not in repentance and faith, but with fear, panic and confusion. After the Egyptians experienced various plagues and they madly pursued the Israelites into the wilderness, God threw them into confusion of mind (Ex. 14:24). On one occasion when the faithful Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, confronted his enemies, God afflicted them with such a spirit of confusion that they attacked each other (2 Chron. 20:22). In a similar incident in 1 Samuel 14:15ff, God spread terror and panic amongst the Philistines so that they ended up fighting one another rather than Israel.
Critically, God also warns his own people that he would bring upon them confusion and rebuke because of their wickedness and sin. â€œThe Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and mental confusionâ€ (Deut. 28: 28). Both the prophet Isaiah (Is. 22:5) and Zechariah warn of Godâ€™s judgment bringing a day of confusion â€“ in Zechariah, great panic follows the outbreak of disease as an aspect of Godâ€™s judgment (Zech. 14:13). In short, God is no buttercup when it comes to dealing with the presumptuous sin and rebellion of man. We see throughout Scripture a connection between wickedness and rebellion, disease, confusion and panic. The ensuing societal mess frequently becomes the greater manifestation of Godâ€™s judgment than the original plague.
The spectre of death has a way of pushing people without faith in the living God into mindless and irrational decisions, as well as exposing hypocrisy. A month or so ago, progressive liberal media and elites considered strong national borders (especially those of our southern neighbor) as practically a moral evil, now they canâ€™t shut down national borders fast enough. President Macron in France, a country at the centre of the European Union, has been seizing medical supplies purchased and en route to other European countries. Until a few weeks ago, the radical environmentalist voice was blocking Canadian railroads, condemning productivity, holding the country to ransom and calling man a virus infecting the planet. When an actual virus threatens them, suddenly we need private business and the productive and manufacturing industries to make medical equipment to save the virus from the virus. Though our culture is ready to kill the unborn and the elderly by the thousands by human decision in the name of autonomy and dignity, it is terrified of being exposed to a potential killer of perhaps 1% of those infected by something we donâ€™t control.
The herd mentality currently on display, saturated as it is with 24-hour broadcasts going by the generous definition of â€˜news,â€™ and unlimited social media access, has given new meaning to the expression â€˜going viral,â€™ but what has gone viral is largely fear. The daily diet of apocalyptic headlines becomes self-fulfilling prophecy in markets and social relations in an age that prides itself in being rational, scientific and evidence based. Widespread hysteria, panic buying, lockdowns, mass market sell offs, work closures and draconian measures curbing peopleâ€™s civil liberties are cheered on by a media culture hungry for headlines and the end of the world as we know it â€“ people frequently disregarding or turning on each other to hoard the last piece of pie â€“ or roll of toilet paper, as the case may be. The situation reminds me of the words of the Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, who said, â€œEveryone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.â€ All such times of epidemic and panic are a reminder that history manifests Godâ€™s persistent call to both his people and the nations to repentance (Lk. 13:1-5) and provides valuable opportunity for witness to the truth, beauty and healing power of the gospel.
The Disease on the Ground
To describe the situation as a panic is of course to suggest that there may be, in certain social and political responses, a disproportionate reaction to the situation, or in some tragic instances a self-destructive one. This has been my own sense from the beginning of this crisis â€“ now especially watching things develop in Asia and Africa. We need a biblically grounded, measured and evidence-based response that considers all the nations affected and takes both the impact of the virus and the varied reactions into account when assessing health and well-being implications.
Our reaction to disease will be inescapably shaped by underlying religious assumptions, that is, our world-and-life-view, especially in regard to the nature of the human person and our concept of the divine. In a de-Christianizing West, some of what we have seen does not appear to be driven by a considered Christian common sense nor altruism and love of neighbor, but by a short-sighted self-preservation, a herd mentality or irrational fear.
Sober thinking is frequently a casualty of panic. In Britain, Neil Ferguson, the lead scientist behind the Imperial College prediction of 500,000 deaths in the UK, (who has the virus himself and whose models influenced the government decision to lock Britain down a couple of days ago), has just radically revised his mortality prediction down to 20,000 or less after being challenged by other virologists that his model was based on faulty assumptions. Is it possible that some of our computer models and hasty generalizations rest on inadequate data and less than sufficient information?
We can be very thankful that this disease clearly appears to be less infectious than measles or chicken pox and does not have the mortality of Ebola. In addition, it is also apparent that, unlike the Spanish flu after World War I, which killed millions of the young, this is a disease that is overwhelmingly affecting the elderly and those with pre-existing chronic conditions. Having said that, people are not data points and with every death there is real loss in someoneâ€™s family somewhere. It is always important to keep that in mind while sifting through published statistics that are difficult to interpret (especially for a layman). According to some medical specialists, evaluating the real danger of the disease cannot be done simply by reporting the number of positively-tested persons or persons dying with the virus in their body, but by the number of people actually and unexpectedly dying from pneumonia.
Assessing the severity of the situation is further complicated when you encounter frequently cited articles from â€˜outliersâ€™ like those from the American specialist in medicine and epidemiology at Stanford, John Ioannidis. He argues that currently, the popular media evidence fiasco based on â€˜official figuresâ€™ are near useless from a scientific standpoint:
This evidence fiasco creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19. Reported case fatality rates, like the official 3.4% rate from the World Health Organization, cause horror â€” and are meaningless. Patients who have been tested for SARS-CoV-2 are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes. As most health systems have limited testing capacity, selection bias may even worsen in the near future.
The closest we have to a scientific study, he argues, was from a quarantined cruise ship, the Diamond Princess: â€œThe case fatality rate there was 1.0%, but this was a largely elderly population, in which the death rate from Covid-19 is much higher.â€ His tentative conclusion:
Projecting the Diamond Princess mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%. But since this estimate is based on extremely thin data â€” there were just seven deaths among the 700 infected passengers and crew â€” the real death rate could stretch from five times lower (0.025%) to five times higher (0.625%). Perhaps he is right, perhaps he is wrong. It is too soon to tell. I am content to leave it to medical and disease specialists to wrestle through these questions and tease out the answers. Most argue it is simply too early to draw definitive conclusions regarding the eventual scale of the outbreak and the cost in the lives of the senior population.
A Cure Worse than the Disease?
These evident uncertainties make the media and some political reaction to the virus baffling, to put it mildly. We are not yet certain that lockdowns and Chinese dictatorship-style measures actually work better than Swedenâ€™s decision to keep the country open, even in containing the virus. Sending university students home and shutting schools, for example (an age group not vulnerable to the disease), to mix all day, every day, with parents and grandparents seems counterintuitive to the layperson for containment. Hong Kong, Singapore, Sweden and South Korea have all been handling the situation fairly effectively so far without the draconian lockdown measures seen in Canada, the United Kingdom and other Western nations.
I mentioned in passing that this virus almost certainly spread, like several before it, due to the mishandling and/or consumption of certain animals. There is a religious root to what and how people eat, and pagan ideas about what certain animals can do for us or pass to us if consumed as a delicacy, eaten raw, or even alive, underlies many of the eating habits outside the borders of what used to be called Christendom â€“ nations which were and remain deeply influenced by the Hebrew understanding of food, diet and animal slaughter. To ignore Godâ€™s ordinances with regard to the distinction between clean and unclean animals for consumption, which predates Moses (cf. Lev. 11; Deut. 14) and was evidently known and followed by Noah (Gen. 7:2), has clear consequences.
But it is noteworthy that dealing with the fallout of this violation involves turning to other biblical laws to solve the problem â€“ laws of quarantine that predate, by centuries, our modern understanding of microbiology (cf. Lev. 13-15). Although the details of these laws no longer apply in the same way, the basic principles stand. These laws were applied in the medieval period in dealing with leprosy and were instrumental in eliminating it from Europe. Quarantine is therefore important in preventing the spread of infectious disease. However, the mass quarantine of entire populations who are symptom-free (or clear of the disease after testing) cannot be supported from Scripture and knows no precedent in the West putting us in dangerous territory. There have been interesting examples of voluntary isolation historically, like that of the Derbyshire town of Eyam during a severe outbreak of plague in 1666, but it was voluntary and hardly typical. So how might we assess the risks embedded in the reaction?
First there is the matter of suspended civil liberties. Most people seem to have little or no appreciation for how serious such decisions are. In Britain, police have been flying drones over the Derbyshire Dales to catch people out walking alone in the hills â€“ obviously a terrifying threat to public safety! Ludicrous comparisons to the sufferings of WWII are bandied around as a justification for the suspension of the rights of individuals, families, businesses and churches. Yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, still hidden in his residence, announced the activation of Quarantine Act powers to be enforced by fines and even prison sentences. A friend of mine had the police come to forcibly shut down his warehouse this week, despite his company laboring in a listed essential business.
In the UK, a new government bill gives Parliament wide-ranging powers to restrict events, meetings, and shut down premises such as pubs if ministers decide they are a threat to public health. It enforces new social distancing rules and puts into law powers to detain and isolate individuals judged to be a risk in spreading the virus. Curfews, presumption of guilt and powers of arbitrary arrest are hardly the foundations British civil liberties were built on. If this virus were Bio-Hazard level 4 one might understand some very extreme measures being taken, but some of these decisions based on current evidence seem almost the result of collective delirium. Various British MPâ€™s did express grave concern that the bill could be used in a malicious fashion and insisted the bill should automatically expire within a year. Nonetheless, what are often billed as temporary measures have a way of hanging around after a crisis, setting precedent for the next thing a given state deems to be a threat to public health and safety. Just look at the political fallout of WWII in Britain in terms of the growth of the state, regulation and control.
The British social critic, Peter Hitchens, has raised serious and valid concerns about frantic and risky government measures and their use of a â€˜magic money treeâ€™ offering to save society with funny money in the wake of their shutting down the planet. He writes, â€œthe Coronavirus deaths, while distressingâ€¦are not so numerous as to require the civilized world to shut down transport and commerce, nor to surrender centuries old liberties in an afternoon.â€Progressives, socialists and Marxists who typically hate anything close to a free market economy certainly donâ€™t want to waste an opportunity to stoke and take advantage of a crisis, and we have already seen cynical moves in Western democracies to hide a radical agenda in stimulus bills and packages â€“ including parts of the infamous Green New Deal in the USA. The Liberal government in Canada tried to give itself a free hand for almost two years to spend, borrow and change taxation levels without Parliamentary approval. Even opposition leader Andrew Scheer, a man not even close to being a genuine economic or social conservative, said, â€œWhat we were not prepared for was the governmentâ€™s attempted undemocratic power grab.â€
In New Zealand the government used the crisis to pass a bill decriminalizing abortion and abandoning a national referendum on the subject. We hear the rhetoric of politicians, including Justin Trudeau, telling us that we are a â€˜global communityâ€™ and so a â€˜global crisis demands global cooperation and response.â€™ Unfortunately, this generally means further action to transfer wealth and tax dollars where global elites want it spent, the use of unaccountable international bodies and the leveraging of entities like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, concurrent with the exporting of Western secular values around the world in the name of global governance. Leading socialist and former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, wasted no time in calling for a â€˜temporaryâ€™ global government structure to respond to the crisis, and suggested the UN Security Council should be involved. Brown called for, â€œa taskforce involving world leaders, health experts and the heads of the international organisations that would have executive powers to coordinate the response.â€ Thatâ€™s right, a laundry list of bureaucrats to stage manage the world on behalf of sovereign nation states. It is hard not to see, in the midst of a media-fed panic, a vast power grab in the making. The redoubtable BBC is likewise trumpeting the need for a new world order of global cooperation and praising China (the original source of the virus) for courageous global leadership whilst mindlessly accusing the USA of having â€˜failed.â€™ The sycophants at the BBC, fawning over left-leaning elites, really have sacrificed all credibility as their ideological agenda runs roughshod over reality and treats facts as something they create.
Next there is the economic fallout. The widespread job losses, unemployment, stock market collapse and sharp economic contraction will not only cause untold pain and suffering to ordinary people, but will place more power and control in the hands of the state and a small number of massive corporations. In Canada large companies like Walmart and huge online vendors like Amazon are providing â€˜essential servicesâ€™ and will be making millions, putting them in a great position to put their competition out of business after restrictions are lifted. And the â€˜stimulusâ€™ or â€˜bail-outâ€™ packages, while in various areas necessary to some degree to compensate businesses for government-created losses due to mandatory shutdowns, are further piling up the national debts and mortgaging the future. In Canada the state promises to â€˜generouslyâ€™ give 107 billion away in paychecks to people, as though the state has any money other than what it takes from the taxpayer, printing money it doesnâ€™t have, cheapening currency and devaluing peopleâ€™s savings. What is especially concerning is that in some instances, as in Germany, the government may well end up owning huge shares of private companies across the country in the name of bail-out and stimulus to solve a problem those governments themselves helping to create. These consequences are profoundly troubling and must be thought through now.
The Danger of Reductionism
I started this article by suggesting that the current approach to the crisis was reductionistic. We are dealing with this virus threat as though the harm from the disease can be measured primarily in immediate biological terms i.e. how many people get infected. But the great danger is that this reductionist perspective on human well-being creates a broader health and well-being disaster. Human beings are more than bio-chemical organisms. Our lives participate in a rich tapestry of created aspects, all of which affect our health and wellbeing. The Danish Professor Peter C. GÃ¸tzsche has argued that if the panic goes on, â€œThe harms include suicides that go up in times of unemployment, and when peopleâ€™s businesses built up carefully over many years lie in ruins, they might kill themselves. The panic is also killing life itself.â€
The damage done to peopleâ€™s health by job loss, anxiety, market collapse, loss of education, social isolation, loss of retirement savings, lack of access to healthcare for serious diseases and the dislocation of communities can be utterly devastating. The vulnerable elderly actually have their lives prolonged by social contact, events, recreation and hobbies. We may in fact be shortening the life expectancy of millions by these measures. And countless people needing operations (many of which are being cancelled) and medical treatment for serious conditions may suffer and die because of the current circumstance. Especially in developing countries, the poverty that ensues from catastrophic market collapse and global economic shutdown can be shattering and potentially far worse than the virus itself in terms of mortality and decreasing life-expectancy. And we may soon come to deeply regret the additional debt and surrender of power and ownership to civil governments, with dangerous precedents set for the suspension of civil liberties in the future. Even where people feel there is no other choice due to overstretched health systems, these real consequences cannot be evaded.
Our reaction to the spectre of death may very well be the real manifestation of Godâ€™s judgment. Apostate Western nations and powers thrown into confusion of mind and panic. Christians have a timely opportunity in these days of uncertainty to be courageous and faithful witnesses to the life, hope and freedom that comes only in the gospel of Jesus Christ when people are gripped by fear of the unknown. And we have an obligation to point people to the Word of God and be a voice of calm, sanity and truth, â€œFor God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgmentâ€ (2 Tim. 1:7).
 Andrew Mark Miller, â€œImperial College scientist who predicted 500K coronavirus deaths in UK adjusts figure to 20K or fewer,â€ Washington Examiner, last modified March 26, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/imperial-college-scientist-who-predicted-500k-coronavirus-deaths-in-uk-revises-to-20k-or-less
 John P. A. Ioannidis, â€œA fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data,â€ Stat News, last modified March 17, 2020, https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/17/a-fiasco-in-the-making-as-the-coronavirus-pandemic-takes-hold-we-are-making-decisions-without-reliable-data/
 I do not believe that dietary laws in the Bible are legally binding in the moral sense or in any way impact the issues of human salvation. But with reference to human health they are valid. God says nothing by accident. We donâ€™t observe the sabbaths of ancient Israel, but we do observe the Lords Day. The health of the human heart and life is at stake if sabbath rest is ignored. Similarly, dietary ordinances remain, not as moral laws, but as principles of health for the human body.
 UK police use drones and roadblocks to enforce lockdown, The Guardian, last modified March 26, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/uk-police-use-drones-and-roadblocks-to-enforce-lockdown
 Peter Hitchens, â€œIs shutting down Britain â€“ with unprecedented curbs on ancient liberties â€“ REALLY the best answer?â€ Daily Mail, last modified March 21, 2020, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-8138675/PETER-HITCHENS-shutting-Britain-REALLY-right-answer.html
 Larry Elliot, â€œGordon Brown calls for global government to tackle coronavirus,â€ The Guardian, last modified March 26, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/mar/26/gordon-brown-calls-for-global-government-to-tackle-coronavirus
Peter C. GÃ¸tzsche, â€œCorona: an epidemic of mass panic,â€ Deadly Medicines, last modified March 21, 2020, https://www.deadlymedicines.dk/corona-an-epidemic-of-mass-panic/