What can COVID-19 mean?
Adam Gopnik, a charming writer for The New Yorker who is fascinated by theological questions, takes on the moral meaning of COVID-19 in a recent musing.
He gently mocks the human desire to find sense in suffering, and particularly to find divine method in the particular madness of mass illness—from the medieval Black Death to the modern coronavirus. Instead of questing for a moral reason why God is afflicting us, Gopnik avers, we should accept that diseases arise amorally. Bugs don’t care about us one way or the other: they just do what bugs do.
“The one great advantage we have over medieval people is not that we worship a better god,” he says, “but that we know to wash our hands.” Instead of trying to identify the disease as an antagonist, or as the product of an antagonist (as one Congressman called the new illness “the Chinese coronavirus”), let’s just practice good public health.
Gopnik concludes, “’Don’t “other” the bug; flatten the curve!’ is a good motto, and pretty much all the wisdom that science—or simple rationality—offers in this jumpy moment.”
Christians, however, lift their eyes above science or simple rationality to ask God for wisdom, for perspective on things that matter. And we find help in times of trouble.
Most basically, we find reassurance that God reigns, that Jesus is Lord, and that nothing happens in the world that God does not govern, let alone that takes God by surprise. The world is not going to end this way, suffer as we will, and God will work good out of even this widespread evil.
We find also that when public health crises occur in the Bible, as they often do, they bring to the surface deep problems that have long deserved attention and now must be faced. In particular, long-standing exploitation of the many by the few leaves the people vulnerable to pestilence. The refusal by the powerful to properly distribute the wealth of the country leaves no margin, no resilience, in the population at large. And as the powerful depend on that population, everyone suffers as the society crumples under pressure it cannot endure.
“If you want to know what’s in a cup, upset it and see.” If a physician wants to know how healthy a patient is, she prescribes a stress test and watches to see what happens.
What is happening now? Hoarding of medical supplies by people who don’t know how to use them at the cost of people who do and who need them to treat the sick. Hospitals in Canada are locking such things away now from visitors and even staff who are selfishly stealing them.
What is happening now? Our cousins to the south, who have developed the world’s most litigious culture, are cancelling all sorts of things without any obvious regard for CDC or WHO advisories so as to avoid, yes, spreading the disease but also, one suspects, subjecting themselves to lawsuits over liability.
What is happening now? Politicians who trade in self-regarding posturing are stumbling around trying to manage their images instead of caring for the public and supporting the scientific and medical institutions their policies have starved and shrunk for years.
God has set up the world such that it gives us useful information. When we do well, we generally thrive, and when we don’t, we might enjoy short-term advantages, but the system will eventually spring back and punish us.
You can enjoy cigarette smoking, perhaps for decades, but you’ll almost certainly pay a terrible price. You can drive like a maniac and have thrills for years, but you’ll almost certainly crash horribly someday.
An old Spanish proverb reads like doom itself: “’Take what you want,’ said God. ‘Take what you want—and pay for it.’”
We knew that a pandemic was coming. Good grief: How many novels and TV shows and movies have come out in the last two decades to tell us, over and over again and in the most graphic terms, that exactly this kind of disaster was coming and that we were alarmingly unprepared for it?
We knew that Chinese “wet markets” were likely sources of the next Big Disease.
We knew that there weren’t enough hospital beds and emergency rooms and physicians to handle the medical problems we had already.
We knew that lots of people can’t afford to stay away from their jobs, that lots of single parents have no one other than institutional daycare to look after their children while they work, that lots of kids get their one decent meal a day through school lunch programs, and that lots of students need on-campus employment and residence to survive and can’t just go home for the rest of the semester.
Well, now we really know. Now this useful information is front and centre. So as we each and all do what whatever we can to ride out this awful wave, let’s not waste a good crisis.
This disease is making the world worse. But, God helping us, let’s resolve also to make the world better.