The Coronavirus: Serving Our Sick Neighbors

February 3, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


File:Staff monitoring passengers' body temperature in Wuhan railway station during the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.jpg

Credit: Wikipedia

It’s spreading so quickly. What started as a little-known virus, infecting a group of people in Wuhan in eastern China, is now spreading across the world. The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus a global health emergency. The United States has issued a Level 4 travel advisory, its highest alert, against travel to China.

Part of what makes the coronavirus so frightening is the unknowns associated with it. A live map that tracks the virus shows over 17,000 confirmed cases of the virus. Almost over 500 people have recovered from the virus while over 350 have, sadly, died. This leaves over 16,000 people who are still sick and whose fates we are still awaiting. Doctors are also not sure precisely how the virus can spread. Can it spread before symptoms appear? The jury is still out. There are some reports that the virus can enter a body through simply rubbing one’s eyes if a person has picked up a trace of the virus on their hands.

In the midst of much fear, one of the things we can be thankful for are doctors who go into harms’ way to care for patients. This kind of care has not always, historically, been how society has reacted to sicknesses. In his book The Triumph of Christianity, Rodney Stark quotes the Christian bishop Dionysius of Alexandria, who describes how many people reacted when a smallpox epidemic swept through the Roman Empire in the third century:

At the first onset of the disease, people pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.

Dionysius goes on explain that the response of Christians to this epidemic was quite different:

Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.

It is this uniquely Christian spirit and legacy of caring for the sick, instead of leaving them to die, that endures across much of the world even today.

In 1527, the bubonic plague arrived in Wittenberg Germany, where a monk named Martin Luther was teaching. He chose to stay in Wittenberg and provide care for the sick, during which time he wrote a tract: Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. Luther encouraged people not take unnecessary risks during epidemics, writing:

Examples in Holy Scripture abundantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.

And yet, even as Luther encouraged people to take every available precaution to prevent the spread of a disease, he did not encourage them to do so at the expense of those who were suffering, even if helping the suffering endangered their own lives:

It is the devil who…takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. And so the devil would excrete us out of this life as he tries to make us despair of God, become unwilling and unprepared to die, and, under the stormy and dark sky of fear and anxiety, make us forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles.

Luther goes on to explain why, if we find ourselves in a position to help during a plague, we should defy the fears the devil plants in us:

If Christ shed His blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for His sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with His precepts, His kindness, and all His encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, His servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.

Amen, indeed.

And so today, while nations across the world continue to take precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, I give thanks for the medical professionals who are taking great risks to care for those who are dangerously ill. These professionals are serving their neighbors – both those neighbors who are sick and those neighbors who will not get sick, thanks to their work.

May their love and care do much good for our world.

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