Important COVID-19 Observations And Lessons

Jun 6th, 2020 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The COVID-19 virus has disrupted our lives and devastated the American and indeed the world economy.  No one can authoritatively declare when we will return to any semblance of “normal.”  But, as with all things in life, are there lessons we can learn?  Among many other things, it once again demonstrates how fragile life really is.  It also demonstrates that if we trust in material things (e.g., our job, our wealth, our health) for our security, it can vanish almost instantly.  I believe it is important and thoroughly biblical for us to learn from historical events.  What can we learn from this crisis?

First, a theological observation.  On 1 November 1755 the great Lisbon earthquake occurred, killing at least 50,000 people.  A tsunami that followed killed more, as did a fire that resulted from overturned church candles.  As Lance Morrow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center argues, “these events altered the Western mind.”  Forty-five years before the Lisbon earthquake, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz invented the term “theodicy,” which means “vindication of God.”  If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil in this world?  The French philosophe Voltaire wrote “Candide,” mocking the Leibniz idea that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” The Christian God cannot be good or benevolent, Scottish philosopher David Hume argued:  He is either incompetent, malevolent or powerless; but He is not good.  “It was only 34 years between the Lisbon earthquake and the French Revolution,” a horrific period of state terrorism (e.g., the Reign of Terror), which led to the dictatorial policies and aspirations of Napoleon Bonaparte.  The questions related to theodicy grew even more challenging with World War I and World War II, with all its unimaginable horrors including the Holocaust.  “The world improved in science, medicine, knowledge, convenience.  But so did the efficiency of its wickedness.”  Watching today’s newscasts, listening to the commentators on Fox News or MSNBC, or catching the latest pandemic medical updates do not produce hope or contentment in the midst of this pandemic.  Furthermore, the language of our leaders centers on blame, incompetence, stupidity or politics—and the result is enhanced confusion and fear.  Poignantly, Morrow observes that “Disruptions of nature—climate change or the coronavirus—are parsed as the consequence of human activity, not by God or nature.”  Is the COVID-19 pandemic ethically meaningless? Should we be probing the moral and ethical aspects of this tragic medical crisis?  Should we be delving into the metaphysical and theological questions about God, His providence, His goodness, His grace?  Should we be asking, is God trying to get our attention?  Is He using this pandemic to remind us that, despite our wealth and sophisticated technology, we are not in control?  Is He reminding us that the solution to the problems of the human condition is not more money from the federal government, or choosing the right political leader?  It is coming to terms with our sin and the solution offered in Jesus Christ?  As I have been reading the book of Job, I am convinced that even we evangelicals have been asking the wrong questions about this pandemic.  We are Christ’s ambassadors. Let’s be certain we are representing Him well in the midst of this pandemic.

Second, what are a few valuable lessons learned from this pandemic?  Each sharpens our understanding in constructive ways.

  1. As a nation, America was not prepared for this pandemic. In 2005 George W. Bush gave a speech to the National Institutes of Health. His subject was the risk a new virus might pose to America.  [He had just read J.M. Barry’s history of the 1918 flu pandemic.]   “Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland,” the president said. He announced a plan to detect outbreaks anywhere in the world, stockpile existing vaccines and antiviral drugs, and improve America’s capacity to produce vaccines against new virus strains quickly. “We must be ready to respond at the federal, state and local levels in the event that a pandemic reaches our shores,” he warned.   Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, also made a speech to the NIH, in 2014. “There may and likely will come a time in which we have . . . an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure—not just here at home, but globally—that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly. . . So that if and when a new strain of flu, like the Spanish flu, crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment and we’re further along to be able to catch it.”  Because of the HIV crisis and the Ebola epidemic of the past two decades and because the budgets of the CDC and the NIH were reduced, many of the needed resources were depleted.  Avoiding the politics of blame, we must own this proposition:  Despite the sophisticated and well-funded medical bureaucracy (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health) this nation was not prepared.  This kind of pandemic will occur again and we must be prepared.
  2. COVID-19 began in Wuhan province in China. Whether it was in a research lab or a live animal, meat market, China downplayed and allowed the crisis to get out of control. The Chinese government was deceitful, duplicitous and bears significant responsibility for this worldwide pandemic that has produced widespread devastation.  The world community should in some manner hold China accountable.
  3. As the West has dealt with the pandemic, a sobering truth has emerged: The West is seriously dependent on China for medical drugs and supplies.  About 40% of the total world supply of “active pharmaceutical ingredients,” including 97% of the US market for antibiotics, comes from China.  US pharmaceutical companies are already changing this arrangement, but this was a most serious revelation.
  4. The pandemic has provided a valuable civics lesson for the American people. In the words of columnist Peggy Noonan, it has “provided a daily commercial for federalism—for the states as independent entities, 50 different laboratories of democracy operating within a constitutional structure of separated powers.  Our founders in the summer of 1787 constructed a federal system, where power is shared between the national government and the individual states.  When President Trump declared he had “total power” over dealing with the crisis and over when the shelter in place orders would end, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York “gave a classic lecture based on federalist principles, on the rights and responsibilities of the states.”  Correctly, President Trump then backed down and permitted the states and their respective governors to oversee the re-opening of the economies of the states and to deal with the medical and public policy issues associated with the crisis.  The states are important and play a vital role in this democracy, just as the Founders envisioned it.
  5. In other nations, several leaders have used the pandemic as an excuse to grab more power, with the result being near dictatorships. Viktor Orban of Hungary:  His parliament gave him almost unlimited powers with no expiration date for their exercise.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has seized additional powers, as had Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who blames Muslims for the spread of the virus and has permitted beatings and discriminatory polices towards Muslims in India to be instituted.  In Serbia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Uganda, Azerbaijan, rulers have used the virus pandemic to seize additional powers for their own often dictatorial ends.
  6. The pandemic has raised serious constitutional issues in America as the nation seeks to balance individual liberty with issues of public health. About 70% of Americans support measures to slow the spread of the virus, even if this means yielding certain freedoms and allowing the economy to suffer in the short run.  But, how severe should these restrictions be in a free society?  The free speech, free association and free exercise of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment have all been infringed upon across the country.  Again, most Americans have accepted these to slow the spread of the virus.  But, all of this is problematic at best, worrisome at worst.  To trace virus carriers or those who are ill, governments are using cellphones to track and keep data on its citizens.  Contact tracing is essential to controlling the virus’s spread, but how dangerous is this over time?  A free society must do all it can to survive, but the matter of civil liberties cannot be ignored.  The balance between public health and civil liberties is being sorely tested right now.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the worst pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak that killed over 50 million people, and it has resulted in the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  It will be quite some time before all this is sorted out and we return to what we all consider “normal.”  Wisdom would suggest it will take years for this to occur.  As Christians who believe that God is good and that history can teach us valuable lessons, let’s commit to learning the lessons God would have us learn from this catastrophe.

See Larry P. Arnn in Imprimis (March/April 2020); www.TheEconomist “Checks and Balances,” (8 May 2020); New York Times editorial (3 May 2020); The Economist (25 April 2020), pp. 49-51; Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (2-3 May 2020); and Lance Morrow in the Wall Street Journal (1 May 2020).

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